An Endorsement from a Diner Expert

By Richard Friend

Throughout the course of this Tastee Diner sale saga, I’ve had the pleasure of talking to a number of folks who know a lot more about classic diners than I do.

One gentleman, you could say, literally wrote the book on the subject—a few books, in fact.

Larry Cultrera has been documenting the American diner since 1980, photographing well over 800 models around the country—many of which, sadly, are now long gone.

Knowing that he’s familiar with Laurel’s Tastee Diner, (and the current situation with a potential sale putting it at great risk) I asked Mr. Cultrera if he’d consider writing a letter to Mayor Craig Moe, further encouraging the City of Laurel to purchase this historic building before it’s too late.

Larry Cultrera in 1990, sporting a Tastee Diner sweater.

Not only did Larry write a letter, he put together an extensive presentation that illustrates just how rare Laurel’s 1951 Comac-built diner actually is:

Think about that for a moment. Of the approximately 860 diners that Larry has personally photographed in the past 38 years, only two Comac models remain intact: Jack’s Diner of Albany, NY, and Laurel’s Tastee Diner.

The only other known examples, including Daphne’s Diner in Robbinsville, NJ, have been modified so extensively, they’re barely recognizable as the archetypal stainless steel diners they were designed to be.

“It is my belief that the Tastee Diner of Laurel is the most intact and original Comac Diner still in existence and is worthy of preserving for future generations to hopefully enjoy for years to come.”

Larry Cultrera

My immense thanks to Mr. Cultrera for lending his expert voice to this worthy cause. It is clearly the desire of many to see the Diner be purchased by the City of Laurel, where it can rightly become an authentic part of the Historic District.

Recap: Tastee Diner Appreciation Day

By Richard Friend

Richard Friend, Pete Lewnes, and Kevin Leonard. (Photo: Michael G. Stewart)

Saturday morning, January 19th was an extra-special day at the Tastee Diner. The Laurel History Boys’ “Diner Appreciation Day” saw an outpouring of residents and diner fans from all over the region. Between trying to eat breakfast and chatting with as many folks as possible, it was hard to get an accurate headcount—but the parking lot remained full from before the event began at 9AM until well after noon. And Sunday was a near-repeat, as the diner was packed once more.

Photos © Karen Jackson / For Baltimore Sun Media Group

The purpose of this event was twofold: we wanted to thank diner owner Gene Wilkes and his hardworking staff for the nearly 43 years they’ve maintained the Laurel location. We also wanted to remind Mayor Craig Moe and the City of Laurel that the diner remains important to this community, and that the City’s Community Redevelopment Authority should explore every available opportunity to purchase the endangered building (if not the full property itself) if and when the Pure Hana Synergy application is officially denied. The Board of Appeals hearing is scheduled for this Thursday night, January 24th at 7PM at the Laurel Municipal Center.

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Richard Friend with Laurel Historical Society president Jhanna Levin and Prince George’s County Council Member Tom Dernoga. (Photo: Karen Lubieniecki)

Diner staff went the extra mile, decorating the car with balloons and ensuring that customers were seated and served promptly. Karen Lubieniecki of the Laurel Historical Society shared the following photo gallery:

And City Councilmember Carl DeWalt posted on Facebook after the event:

Saturday morning attended “The Diner Appreciation Day.” The parking lot was completely full and the Diner was packed with our hometown residents. The honorable Prince George’s Co Councilmember Tom Dernoga and members of his staff attended and enjoyed a delicious Diner breakfast. Edith, my new friend, told us she has been coming to the Diner for the past 40 years and considers the Diner “Home” and the Diner staff and patrons family! Since 1985 when I became a resident and employee of the City of Laurel the theme surrounding Laurel was the revitalization of Main St. History indicates this has been a very very slow process. The outpouring of support I witnessed yesterday for the Diner by our citizens is a golden opportunity to help preserve that structure, move it to Main St. and finally achieve a huge step forward in this revitalization process!

Carl DeWalt, Councilmember, Ward 1

The pending sale to Pure Hana Synergy was unanimously denied on December 11th, and while the medical marijuana dispensary firm has been planning its appeal, I believe that we’ll ultimately learn that their application never should have received the City’s initial endorsement. A town’s Municipal Code can only be bent so far, and Thursday night’s hearing should remove all doubt.

While most are optimistic that the Board of Appeals will uphold the Planning Commission’s recommendation, the diner’s future is far from safe. Owner Gene Wilkes has made it abundantly clear that he still wants to sell. He mentioned having at least two additional offers on his property–both of which would result in the loss of the diner. This is why it’s imperative that the City of Laurel work with him (or his prospective buyers) on a solution that would allow the diner car to be preserved and relocated.

Mr. Wilkes spoke at length about the challenges he’s faced for years while running the Laurel diner, particularly with keeping it open 24 hours a day in a location that has been prone to crime. He also spoke about his refusal to ever allow it to be designated as a historic property, citing regulations that the City imposes on such properties, and how he believes it would only further hinder his ability to sell.

Despite his pleasant and courteous demeanor, I think Mr. Wilkes still views anyone interested in saving the diner as somehow impeding his right to sell it. I’ve tried to explain that this isn’t the case at all. He has more than earned the right to sell and retire. Pure Hana Synergy’s application to purchase it simply should’ve been negated long before it reached this point—and that has nothing to do with diner preservationists, but everything to do with the City’s own Municipal Code. We’re only interested in seeing the building relocated to Main Street, where a new owner can be incentivized to breathe new life into it.

As Saturday’s event showed beyond a doubt, there is an abundance of love for this diner; and with proper advertising and sustained community engagement, it clearly has tremendous potential for the Historic District. The City of Laurel should be exploring ways to purchase it, protect it, and give it the historic designation it deserves.

Based on his extensive experience in Laurel, Mr. Wilkes is correct on many points which reinforce his desire to sell the Laurel location. But by the same token, it’s unfair to measure the Laurel diner’s performance against that of his other locations in Bethesda and Silver Spring—areas that have nearly triple the population and more robust economies.

In the hands of a motivated new owner—an owner who will perhaps decide to limit the business to regular operating hours, consistently engage in public outreach efforts, (much like the highly-successful 29 Diner in Fairfax does) and take full advantage of the many preservation grants and incentives available to a historic location—this diner can positively thrive.

Please plan on attending the Board of Appeals hearing this Thursday night at the Laurel Municipal Center, and let City officials know that you expect them to do right by this historic diner. There are numerous resources to explore, including crowdfunding, angel investors, and others who could contribute to a hugely successful relocation and reopening on Main Street.

Thursday, January 24, 2019
7PM
Laurel Municipal Center
8103 Sandy Spring Road
Laurel, MD 20707

Diner Appreciation Day

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Join us Saturday morning, January 19th from 9:00–12:00 PM at the Tastee Diner, as we hope to draw an an extra-large breakfast crowd of Save the Diner supporters! It will be the last weekend before the pivotal Board of Appeals meeting that will decide whether or not Pure Hana Synergy can purchase the site and convert it to a medical marijuana dispensary. That hearing is tentatively set for Thursday, January 24th at 7 PM at the Laurel Municipal Center.

The hearing, originally scheduled for December 20th, was delayed by over a month at Pure Hana’s request after the Planning Commission unanimously voted to deny their application at the December 11th meeting.

While it’s expected that the Board of Appeals committee will uphold the ruling, Tastee Diner owner Gene Wilkes has made it clear that he still intends to sell the property. After nearly 43 years of operating the Laurel location, he’s earned the right to retire.

When Mr. Wilkes took over the diner in 1976, he technically saved it, himself. Had it not become part of his Tastee Diner chain when it did, there’s a very good chance that it wouldn’t have survived into the next decade. Much like Outrider’s Diner just up the street in North Laurel, it would have disappeared from the landscape before generations of Laurelites could enjoy its affordable fare and authentic 1950s ambiance.

As a way of saying thank you to Mr. Wilkes—and showing the City of Laurel that the diner remains a relevant and vital part of this town—we’re asking you to come out to the diner in force Saturday morning, January 19th.

Whether it’s just for a cup of coffee or a full-blown breakfast, please come support the diner and its hardworking staff. With over 2,300 petition signatures, we’ve already shown the City leaders that people want to save the diner. Now let’s show them in person, en masse.

With the Pure Hana deal out of the picture, this is the opportunity for the City of Laurel’s Community Redevelopment Authority to step in and make an offer for the property—or, at the very least, to negotiate a purchase of the diner itself—in order to relocate it to property that the City owns at 312 Main Street.

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Adding the diner to the Historic District would bring long-term benefits the likes of which the CRA will probably never see again. Once it receives historic designation, the diner would qualify for state and county preservation grants, among other funding. The Maryland Main Street Program, which Laurel is now a part of, would provide further aide in this transition.

But most importantly, the City should, by now, see the economic potential that this diner would bring to Main Street. If they don’t, a large turnout with media coverage will make the picture even clearer.

Diner Appreciation Day
Saturday, January 19, 2019
9 AM – 12 PM
Tastee Diner Laurel
118 Washington Blvd.

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Windy

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A typical Saturday scene: Kevin, Windy, Pete, and Rich at Laurel’s Tastee Diner. (Photos: John Floyd II)

There are a number of good people both working at and frequenting the Tastee Diner who make it the special place that it is. But for us, the first was a waitress named Windy Floyd.

Over the past 3 years or so, Kevin, Pete, and I have had the pleasure of becoming “regulars” at Laurel’s legendary Tastee Diner. To say that there’s no other place quite like the Diner would be a tremendous understatement; its historic ambiance alone just genuinely inspires us as we compare notes and go about uncovering new stories from Laurel’s past. I could sit for hours at Starbucks and not come up with a single idea; but give me ten minutes with a cup of coffee at the Diner and the wheels already start to turn. And it all began by sitting at a table in Windy’s section.

This being its 40th anniversary under the Tastee Diner banner, we’re in the process of putting together a very interesting history of the three diner cars that have occupied the site at 118 Washington Boulevard since the early 1930s, originally started by Walter Susini.

But sometimes real life has a way of interfering with things. This past Saturday—at the Diner, of course—reminded us of that.

Windy didn’t seem to be working her regular shift. Another long-time waitress, Melissa, came over to help us instead. But rather than take our order, Melissa began with an unusual question:

“Have you all heard from Windy?”

She went on to reveal that the Diner hadn’t heard from her since Tuesday—that she’d missed her Friday shift without calling in, and was scheduled to work that day (Saturday) as well… but still hadn’t called in.

Calls to Windy’s cellphone went straight to voicemail, she said. Even more worrisome, a visit to her house in Jessup yielded no response, although “all the cars are there,” according to Melissa. “The dog isn’t even barking.” that didn’t sound good at all. We lost our appetites.

We left the Diner that afternoon while Anne Arundel County Police were doing a welfare check at Windy’s house, prompted by a call from Diner staff. There was a brief bit of hope that she may have traveled to visit her family in Tennessee—that, perhaps, something had happened that caused her to leave unexpectedly. But even still, by all accounts, Windy would’ve made time to call the Diner to let them know.

A few hours later, we learned the devastating news. Windy was dead. She’d been shot—apparently while she slept—by the man with whom she lived. He’d then turned the gun on himself, taking his own life.

Apparently, there was a history of domestic strife that wasn’t reported to police—problems that had increased in severity in recent weeks, according to investigators. Windy, unfortunately, never let on that anything was wrong. She was only 49 years old.

* * *

The Diner was literally a brighter place with Windy working there. Her smile and laughter were immediately welcoming, whether you were a regular or not. Getting to know her over these past few years has been a pleasure—sitting in Windy’s section was truly part of our routine. We looked forward to seeing her. She’d actually save “our table” if she knew we were coming in when there was a crowd. And she genuinely took an interest in the research we do, often stopping to sit with us for a few moments to get a look at some vintage photos Pete had found, or at Kevin’s most recent Laurel Leader article.

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She was one of the first people to receive a Lost Laurel book from me, and could always count on Pete to bring her back a t-shirt from a concert at Atlantic City. She was proud of her Laurel History Boys swag, too: t-shirts and stickers courtesy of Kevin—who enjoyed asking her for a menu every single week, despite ordering the same thing time and again. “I already know what you’re gonna get, so don’t even ask for that menu,” she’d playfully chide.

Kevin, Pete, and I always took turns paying the tab, and even though we’d often forget who got the last one, Windy never did. If I reached for the check, she’d put it in front of Pete instead. “No, Rich, you got it last time. Let him pay!”

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This has been a sad, surreal week. And it will undoubtedly be sad and surreal at the Diner for quite some time. But Windy wouldn’t want that, I’m sure. She was excited about the prospect of this 40th Anniversary of the Tastee Diner that we were just discussing last weekend, and would’ve loved to see how it shapes up. Whether you’re a Diner regular, or even if you haven’t been in years, stop by one day soon and let the staff know that you’re thinking of them. If it feels like we’ve lost a family member, we can only imagine how tough this must be for Windy’s co-workers. Jeff, Joy, Melissa, Patty, Emily, Kevin, Gene, and everyone in the Tastee Diner family—you’re in our thoughts and have our sincerest condolences.

UPDATE:
We’ve established a GoFundMe page to benefit Windy’s children and grandchildren. All proceeds raised will go directly to her oldest daughter, Lacey. Please visit https://www.gofundme.com/windyfloydmemorial and contribute what you can—no amount is too small, and you can donate anonymously. Also, kindly share this link to spread the word.