People may initially come to authentic diners for a variety of reasons – novelty, reviews, recommendations – but the majority of business for most restaurants is repeat business. I’ve been to Gypsy’s about 10 times, returning for celebrations, proximity, and cravings. I was interested to see what brought others back to Gypsy’s, and what the demographic makeup might be. Coming in, I expected families, couples, and retirees to return, enchanted by the diner aesthetic and looking for meals satisfying to everyone. Research on the topic is limited, with most all analysis of the diner stuck in a historical viewpoint. Is the aesthetic a one-time novelty, or does it contribute more deeply to the restaurant experience? This begs the question: why do people return to modern authentic diners?
What generally makes customers return? According to Haemoon Oh, it’s primarily value. Through his study of customer return rates, he found that value is the best indicator of customer return, because satisfaction and quality are both closely linked and influenced by value. (Oh, 66). In my interview questions, I used satisfaction, quality, and value as priming terms to get more streamlined responses, since Oh stated they are commonly accepted as three causes of restaurant success. (Oh, 58). After getting grounded in the important factors of customers’ return, I looked at the historical role of diners. Andrew Hurley writes about the diner’s transformation from a working-man’s hash house into a middle-class family restaurant. 1940’s diners primarily had working-class men commune for meals, while the 1950’s brought on a conversion of the standard diner from industrial to family-friendly. However, the working-men clientele adamantly opposed any change in the diner experience (Hurley 1300). The appearance of Gypsy’s resembles the transformed 1950’s family diner, but would the clientele match as well?
I strolled into the metallic diner at 5:30pm. When you enter, staff uniforms, glossy decor, and classic American menu items immediately pull you into the 50’s atmosphere. The staff welcomed me and escorted me to a booth, and after a brief conversation with the manager, my interviews were approved. Jukeboxes hooked up to a speaker system and individual menus represent a slight modern-day take on the traditional diner style. The menu is half breakfast, half lunch, with a small sandwiched card between the last pages listing daily dinner specials. Few people are seated, with the large booth sections emptied save for two couples and a family. After getting my food, I was immediately confronted with an incredible portion – two pancakes, two toast slices, a bowl of cheese grits, two sausage patties, an egg, and a syrup-butter platter to the side. Despite my initial conservative intentions, I couldn’t resist wolfing it all down! The food is immensely filling and satisfying.
My first (and only) interview of the day was with a lovely old white couple visiting their daughter. Diner atmosphere didn’t come up once in the conversation; rather, they simply loved the satisfying food. When asked about the authenticity, the man eloquently stated “It’s a diner.” This was an indication that the diner exterior just pulled in customers, with the comfort food causing regular returns. The other two folks were individual middle-aged men – one simply visiting because of proximity to his motel, and one who aggressively refused an interview. I felt like an outsider. I sensed the clientele highly valued an undisturbed meal, as evidenced by their American flag masks and country accents. Afterwards, the waiter overhearing my conversation recommended a morning visit to see the regulars, which set up my next time frame: 7am on a Friday morning.
As I drove to Gypsy’s with the rising sun, I reflected on my past experiences with Gypsy’s. My family first went due to proximity since it was near a theater, and were initially enamored with the decor and satisfying food. Next, I went to Gypsy’s after a 40-hour fast for my church. I filled my shrunken stomach with the feast of a lifetime. Coming in this morning, the head waitress warmly offered me a booth and asked if I wanted some coffee. I accepted a black coffee. Sitting in the booth and drinking my coffee, I noticed the soft hum of the ventilation and the work of the kitchen staff composing some pleasant white noise. It felt like an urban version of sunrise at the Grand Canyon, proving an intensely peaceful solace. You would think the glitter and gloss sprinkled throughout the diner’s decor would make it less homey. However, I think the opposite is true. It forms a crystallized snapshot of the comforting past – unmoving and unchanging.
As the first few customers shuffled in, I heard the staff asking if they wanted their regular drink – iced tea for one man, black coffee for another. They were all middle-aged working men. Staff provided minimal interaction to those alone, having a shared understanding of the customers’ preference for solitude. I didn’t understand. Every single-seated booth staunchly refused my request for an interview. Finally, a pair of chatting workers accepted my request. They come to Gypsy’s when their aerosol work brings them to the area. One of them remarked that unlike most breakfast spots, at Gypsy’s they both order differently every single time due to the consistency of the menu. I later interviewed the head waitress. When asked about her clientele, she replied “60% working men, 30% retirees, and 10% young people.” She thinks that people return due to the good food and good service. While I agree on both points, I don’t think that’s the whole picture. Travelers and truckers come to Gypsy’s whenever they’re in the area. It’s comparable to diaspora, where those far from home come to a community where they feel welcome. Gypsy’s is a grandmother’s house, feeding you far too much with a warm smile and a welcoming atmosphere. When you return, it’s always the same as you remember it.
Despite having the appearance and characteristics of a family-style diner, Gypsy’s Shiny Diner fulfills the role of the traditional 1950’s boxcar hash house. Busy working men return to the diner for comfort. Every time, they’re given a warm welcome by a dining staff highly in tune with their preferences for food and conversation. Menu items taste as if they’re home-cooked, with comforting standardized appearance and delivery. As cars pass by on the adjacent highway, you might read the newspaper and have a brief escape from your busy, ever-changing life. The traditional diner is a stable, known quantity in a world of rapidly changing unknowns. It represents a simpler time. Customers don’t return to the Shiny Diner for new menu items, coupons, or special promotions. They return for the promise of satisfying food in a place that truly feels like home.
Oh, H. (2000). Diners’ perceptions of quality, value, and satisfaction: A practical viewpoint. Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, 41(3), 58-66.
Hurley, Andrew. “From Hash House to Family Restaurant: The Transformation of the Diner and Post-World War II Consumer Culture.” The Journal of American History, vol. 83, no. 4, Mar. 1997, p. 1282. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.2307/2952903.
Featured Image: Kansas Historical Society (2014). [Valentine’s Shamrock Diner] Kansapedia. https://www.kshs.org/diners/graphics/shamrock1.jpg