Everything old is new again.
While the food world is eating up food trucks like they were the latest hot cakes, portable food enterprises have roots stretching from the 1800s’ lunch wagons to the mid-20th century’s roadside diners.
During a summer vacation to southern Arizona, I ran across Dot’s Diner in Lowell — a recently closed tiny diner in a trailer-park motel that still had thick white coffee mugs standing sentry like soldiers on the darkened shelves.
With a little bit of digging, I discovered Dot’s was a relic of more than 2,000 such little diners that had been manufactured during the middle of the last century in Wichita, Kan., by Valentine Manufacturing Co.
The Kansas Historical Society has researched the Valentine Diners and found they began their nearly 40-year heyday during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
“They were constructed as eight- to 10-seat diners that one or two people could operate,” the society reports on its website. “If you were good at it — if you served good food at a fair price and kept your customers happy — you could make a successful business of a Valentine.”
That pitch sounds an awful lot like those of the food-truck proponents in this post-Great Recession age, doesn’t it?
Of course, the Valentine Diners don’t have wheels.
The Midwest Valentine company shipped its little units via flat-bed truck to small towns throughout the nation and even abroad.
The American Diner Museum in Providence, R.I., traces the roots of the diner in general to 1872, when Providence’s Walter Scott used a horse-drawn lunch wagon to serve meals to workers at various locations.
In the Midwest, Arthur Valentine, an Illinois native, moved to Kansas in 1914 and eventually opened a restaurant in Hazelton, Kan. He added a few more, and it became the Valentine Lunch System. He then teamed with a portable-building manufacturer and created the Valentine Manufacturing Co. in 1947.
A post-World War II sales brochure for the Valentine company touts the benefits of self-employment:
“The individual operator is assured of a permanent, self-sustaining revenue where he becomes his own boss and is not subservient to someone else. His immediate family may assist in the operation of each unit, as only two operators are required on each shift when it is running to capacity. During slow periods of business, one operator can do all the work and give good and efficient service, thereby holding the overhead to a minimum, with corresponding high profits.”
Valentine even made it easy to pay off the purchase of a diner. Many of the buildings were equipped with small wall safes.
“Operators placed a percentage of each day’s profits in the wall safe, and a Valentine representative made regular rounds to remove the payments,” the Kansas Historical Society says. “Failure to make the payment brought the threat of, quite literally, removing the building.”
Arthur Valentine died in 1954, and the Valentine Diners fell victim to the growing fast-food expansion. In 1975, the Valentine Manufacturing Co. was gone.
The Kansas Historical Society still locates existing Valentine Diners across the United States and documents their history.