If you grew up in New Jersey, you know diners. It's part of the Garden State's landscape as much as the Turnpike, the shore, and Bruce Springsteen.
You'd think with so much diner history located right here, that there'd be more of an effort to preserve the old fashioned stainless steel diners that still exist.
According to Daniel Zilka, there are such efforts. The thing is, many of them come from overseas.
"Europeans love old American diners," said Zilka, who quickly listed a spate of diners that were lifted off their foundations, packed up in plastic wrap ("It's great for keeping a diner together for shipment"), and shipped across the Atlantic.
Zilka runs the American Diner Museum based in Rhode Island, which is dedicated to the preservation and restoration of diners nationwide. He's an expert on all aspects of diner lore.
"The Beach Haven Diner, that went," he said. "So did the Gateway Diner in Phillipsburg. That's in Europe now."
And Zilka still mourns "the excellent diner in Westfield. That's in Germany."
The Europeans know something that Americans, particularly New Jerseyans, don't. "Why do they cherish vintage diners in Europe and we don't? Is it because it's right in front of you, and you take it for granted until it's no longer there?" he said.
All the classic diners aren't destroyed or relocated to other parts of the planet.
One that Zilka is dedicated to saving is right in the
Mom's Diner, previously known as the Premium Diner, is a classic 1950s building, located next to the Gem Motel, which itself was erected in the late 1940s. Zilka has been trying for several years to get the diner sold and moved, but now the project has taken on a special urgency. That's because both the diner and motel have been sold to make way for a Wawa convenience store and a gas station complex as part of the redevelopment of that section of Route 1 in Avenel.
The clock is ticking on the fate of the classic diner.
It's up on Zilka's website, for sale at $20,000, which "is very negotiable at this point."
"It's a beautiful diner. Everything inside is almost perfectly intact, and the changes on the outside aren't structural. This diner can be restored to how it looked when it was delivered," he said.
Mom's Diner was constructed by the Fodero Dining Car Company in the mid-1950s and shipped to the Avenel location. Zilka said that the metal fabricated diner section was installed onto a rear building where the heavy cooking and prep work was done, as well as a storage area, a common means of making the diner ready for business.
Mom's Diner, in fact, is an exact duplicate of a diner in one of Fodero's brochures.
The diner is illustrated with a photo display on Zilka's website.
As intact as the diner is, though, Zilka warns that time and water aren't friends. The diner was last opened for business years ago, and the years haven't been kind.
"Last time I saw it was nine months ago. It's deteriorating because of water penetrating from the roof down on the steel frame structure," Zilka said. "It will need roof repair and replacement."
There has been some interest over the years in the purchase of the classic diner. Some people who have bought diners and moved them to other sites use them for their original purpose, Zilka said. Others turn them into museums.
A diner purchased in Pennsylvania and moved into a ethnically diverse neighborhood in Washington, DC, was turned into a restaurant specializing in Trinidad cuisine.
"That diner was the same vintage as Mom's, and now it's a very successful functioning eatery," Zilka said. "People in the neighborhood seem to have adopted it as their own."
While the price on Mom's of $20,000 is very negotiable, anyone interested has to have the money to move it off the foundation and ship it. Zilka said if the diner was moved anywhere it NJ, it would easily cost another $20,000 for the work of disassembling and transporting it.
"It's very original. If someone wanted to build that same diner, it'd cost $500,000 to replicate it," he said.
Zilka is hoping that someone with creativity, vision, and a few bucks will buy Mom's Diner, move it, and turn it into a work of art right here in New Jersey. That's because even with all the history of diners in the state, which run parallel to the introduction of cheap cars and a highway system, the Garden State has no diner memorials to call its own.
According to Zilka, 5,000 to 6,000 diners in the country during their heyday with 24 companies building them, and 11 of those manufacturers were in NJ. Now there are a measly 2,100 classic diners left nationwide, and the fight to preserve them - including Mom's Diner - is on.
"it could be turned into a restaurant. Or a small town or village in New Jersey or Pennsylvania could turn it into a real landmark and a tourist attraction," Zilka said. "This diner needs to be saved by the right person who can see its potential."