In 'Diner Capital of the World,' 150 Have Shut Down

NPR digs into what happened to some of New Jersey's favorite diners
By Gina Carey,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 13, 2024 2:20 PM CDT
Where Have New Jersey's Famous Diners Gone?
People wait for their breakfast inside of a local diner in Hoboken, New Jersey.   (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)

If all-night diners aren't one of the first images that come to mind when you envision New Jersey, then you're probably not a local. "I'm sure people in other states love their diners, too," Michael Gabriele, who wrote The History of Diners in New Jersey, tells NPR. "But it's really more of our identity and our culture here in New Jersey," So much so, that minor league baseball's Somerset Patriots created an alternate identity, the Jersey Diners, according to "Diners are such a special part of the DNA of New Jersey," says General Manager Patrick McVerry.

There are more diners per capita in the Garden State than anywhere else in the country, prompting Eater to declare it the "diner capital of the world." This comes with a bit of history. From the 1920s into the '80s, Jersey was home to more than a dozen factories that manufactured up to a third of the country's retro prefab diners, many of which opened right there. But in recent years, diners have been on the decline. About 450 remain, but there was close to 600 only a decade ago. NPR spoke to Peter Sedereas, owner of Town Square Diner and the leader of an informal coalition of Jersey diners, who cited several reasons for recent closures.

  • Family lines: Sedereas believes diners were typically passed down through families, but younger generations are less keen on going into the biz. "My kids aren't interested in the diner business," he said. "They're all in the medical field."
  • Worthwhile paydays: He also said that diners are usually in high-value locations. "Property values are very high, and diners are always at the best locations. In the city centers, on the busy highways, or on corners." Without family members to pass their businesses on to, owners are selling them off for a pretty penny.
  • Rising costs: And while the pandemic caused many closures, Sedereas says the diners that survived adjusted with the times, especially as food costs rose. "Our menus used to be 18 pages long," he says. "Now it's one page, front and back." More efficient menus create savings in labor and prep time, and diners are also shifting away from staying open 24 hours as fewer people binge on late-night disco fries.
This flexibility could be key in keeping the state's title. "I don't see diners ever leaving New Jersey. Diners have always adapted," says Sedereas. (Now from New Jersey: maple syrup.)

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