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14 Hospitality Rules Explaining the Diner's Unparalleled Product-Market Fit
Few products in history have hit like the American Diner — and that's why your favorite restaurant is just a diner in disguise
In this installment of The Supersonic — and for reasons that will hopefully reveal themselves by the end of the exercise, if talking about diners isn't, just, fun — we note the singular American success story that is the diner. The generally understood history is that they started as food trucks of a sort, horse drawn, in the late 1850s. By the 1930s, they had evolved into the form factor that we know today, a space with booths and/or tables on one side and a counter on the other. There is an implied contract between diners and their patrons that the major plot points of the menu will be hit: coffee, omelettes, burgers "Deluxe", grilled cheeses, cantaloupe with cottage cheese, and big muffins; plus something that feels risky to order at a diner, like the seared scallops.
Diners are uniquely ubiquitous, and immortal. When diners do close, they do not go quietly into the night, like the weird elevated tapas joint with the rotating menu and house-made smoked salt that the chef likes you to sprinkle on the baked eel. When a diner closing is announced, vigils and fundraisers are held and petitions are circulated; the ultimate closures are mourned and taken as the darkest kind of referendum of a neighborhood. Indeed, they anchor cities and towns across the U.S. and the world. If one were to try to rank all of the consumer product creations in history, one would have a very hard time ranking 10 products above the American Diner in terms of global market penetration (try it). Around a table, everyone has a go-to diner order and a specific diner that can be remembered by name for every period of life, from childhood to college to first job to right now.
What is also incredible about the diner is that many restaurants — most, arguably — can only aspire to have the kind of steady, loyal business that the average diner enjoys. One does wonder why, with the diner source code so categorically open, more restaurants don't use the blueprint. The diner’s product-market fit is invincibly strong, so why do so many good operators look down on the format?
Or do they? If we were to attempt to codify the American Diner operator’s rules of hospitality engagement, they might be:
Be local, welcoming, and restorative.
You need booths and a bar: those are the best seats.
Be in the business of saying yes — to walk-ins, to substitutions, to special requests.
Keep the table top simple, and don't be afraid to make some of the condiments self-serve.
If you display your desserts, you'll sell more of them.
Paying at the register is a good way to reduce turn time and alleviate waitstaff workload — and nobody hates it!
Familiarity over innovation.
If you make it an up-charge, there's less sticker shock.
Don't sleep on interactive placemats.
Always make sure there's a healthy option, a comfort option, an I-don't-know-what-I'm-in-the-mood-for option, a no-nonsense option and, yes, a burger.
Related, if you’re printing the menu everyday you’re doing it wrong.
The lobster is going to be overrated.
The service is going to be underrated.
When in doubt, put pickles on the plate.
So, maybe, if you look closely at the most successful restaurants of the world, in fact by and large they are just doing as the diner does. Pick a favorite non-diner restaurant, one that you've been to many times: how many of these rules are they using? Of course, there is another type of incredible restaurant, and it's not a diner at all. And one does wonder, how did the diner get it so right? We'll get to those topics in due course, but for today, consider this: the reason you love that restaurant you love so much is because it’s just a diner in disguise.
Founder & CEO
Blackbird Labs, Inc.
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