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Stayin’ alive: 24-hour diners hold on despite growing competition, changing tastes

Kostas (Gus) and Dimitrios (Jimmy) Jr. Hronis bought the Capitol Diner in 2003. The 24-hour diner is located off Eisenhower Boulevard in Swatara Township. - (Photo / Amy Spangler)

It didn’t take long for Alex Hronis and his brothers to realize they needed to stay open around the clock at Baker’s Diner in northern York County.

Their father, Jimmy, owned a 24-hour diner in the Lehigh Valley for 35 years and the brothers, all close in age, grew up around the business.

After college, they each pursued other careers before returning to their diner roots. In 2003, Gus and Jimmy Jr. bought Capitol Diner, a 24-hour diner off Eisenhower Boulevard in Swatara Township. Alex and Billy took over Baker’s in 2005.

“It’s what we knew,” said Alex Hronis, 41.

About 18 months after buying Baker’s, the Greek family turned the local landmark on Route 15 near Dillsburg into a 24/7 operation as part of a renovation of the restaurant started by former owner Dolores Baker decades earlier.

Hronis believes being open all the time is an advantage, given the busy traffic passing by his Carroll Township restaurant.

Amy Spangler

“We do it for the sense of convenience,” he said. “We thought the demand was there.”

It paid off. But Hronis may be in a shrinking minority.

A growing number of traditional diners have abandoned round-the-clock service because of trouble staffing three shifts, growing competition from convenience stores and changing consumer habits.

Patti Skiadis owns the Route 30 Diner in East Lampeter Township, Lancaster County.

The classic 1950s-era diner, a traditional stainless steel dining car built in New Jersey, was open 24/7 for a brief time when Skiadis and her husband took it over in 2015. But the late-night crowd just wasn’t there, she said, plus she has a lot of competition nearby.

Diners can pick from IHOP and Waffle House, not to mention growing chains such as Sheetz, Wawa and Turkey Hill that have continued to expand their menus.

“It’s hard to staff it, too,” said Skiadis, who alternates shifts with her husband every day.

Some are holding onto 24-hour operations, knowing they could be the last generation to do so.

“I highly doubt there is a market anymore for a 24-hour diner, unless you are along a busy interstate,” Skiadis said.

Hard work, long hours

Louie Kostopoulos has owned 24-hour Front Street Diner in Susquehanna Township for about six years. It was previously a Chinese buffet. He admits staffing has always been a problem, having spent 17 years at the former Summerdale Diner across the river in East Pennsboro Township before owning Front Street Diner.

The overnight shift is especially challenging, but he doesn’t see any reason to close for a few hours. The night shift staff can clean when it’s slow and get the place ready for the early-morning breakfast rush.

People still gravitate to diners because they feature broad menus with affordable comfort food and a heavy dose of specials and signature dishes.

Spinach pies are popular at Front Street Diner. Route 30 Diner has a hubcap pancake that is the size of a barstool.

“People like the idea that it’s a little different,” Skiadis said.

Amy Spangler

Many diners also echo with a nostalgic vibe, whether or not they are encased in stainless steel. The vibe might come from easy listening oldies tune or a classic song from the 1970s. “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees, for example, might be pumping out at Baker’s ahead of an early-bird dinner rush. The specials include a pan-seared stuffed salmon and a pork chop marsala.

Or it might be the cash-only payment method at the 62-seat Route 30 Diner, which also caters to truck drivers who need a place to park for the night — or a new business idea.

“We do have a lot of people who want to buy (the diner) when they walk through the door,” Skiadis said, offers that she attributes to the diner’s look and history.

“Any diner not made out of stainless steel is not a diner in my book,” Skiadis said. “That’s what made them diners. The rest are just restaurants with a glorified name of diner.”

Still, whether they are operating out of an old metal dining car, a converted buffet restaurant or in a modern facility with stucco and brick exteriors, diners are a hands-on business, owners said. Most put in long hours and work seven days a week to keep their places running smoothly.

And it requires a lot of micromanagement, Hronis said. Cleanliness and consistently good products are paramount.

But diner owners also have to experiment and listen to customers when it comes to food trends, such as the growing preference for salads and wraps, he said.

“Some things work, some don’t,” Hronis added. “You never really want to change too much.”

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