The Rise and Fall of Roadside Magazine

Chapter 3

For the record, my first diner visit as an “independent” was Lloyd’s Diner in Framingham, Massachusetts. I drove out there from Watertown probably to both deliver the news of my career move to Rich Lloyd as well as to sell some space in the next issue. Rich bought both the space and my lunch. It wasn’t long before I began to enjoy one of the most appreciated perks of publishing the magazine: The free meals.

Miss Albany DinerIn the summer of 1991, one of the happiest moments in the history of the magazine took place. I had received a phone call from a Troy, New York artist named Harvey Kaplan. Harvey and I chatted on about diners, his artwork, and about a little place called the Miss Albany Diner.

“You have to see this place. It’s on Broadway right near the big Nipper.”

“The what?” I asked.

“There’s an old RCA building down there with this gigantic Nipper on the roof.” As if my interest weren’t piqued enough, he continued. “When you go in the diner, you’ll see these three giant French fries hanging from the ceiling. They’re colored different shades of brown and they’re numbered to indicate the degree of frying you ask for.”

The next day, I hit the road to Albany. Using Harvey’s landmark tip, finding the Miss Albany, a precious 1941 Silk City, proved easy. With a stack of Roadside in hand, I stepped into the diner for the first time. Before I had the chance to introduce myself, the owners had descended upon me.

“You’re finally here!” exclaimed Jane and Bill Brown, mother and son team running the diner that day. “We saw you in Yankee and wondered when you’d get here!” They all but sat me in their laps and gave me a big hug. Patriarch Cliff Brown, missing that day, later would prove equally as hospitable. To this day, I’m grateful for knowing the Brown family, some of the best people in the business.

After repeated visits, I would tell people to make a point of visiting if within 50 miles of the place. However, if in a hurry, don’t introduce yourself to the owners.

The Brown’s notwithstanding, we soon began to discover an unexpected obstacle to our attempts to sell ad space.

The closer one travels towards New York City and its surrounding environs, the greater the concentration of Greek-owned diners. While the Greek community owns approximately half the diners in Massachusetts, in the New York metro area, that concentration is closer to 95%. Also, we discovered, the diners are larger, newer and have much more extensive menus. The difference between the New England diner and the Mid-Atlantic Diner proved glaring. Aside from that, the owners of these places, mostly took a wary stance of our attempts to relieve them of their money.

All along, we tried to position the magazine as “the in-flight magazine for your diner.” In other words, Roadside’s greatest utility comes from using it to help owners market their diners as very special restaurants, with unique histories and atmospheres. We soon found that the newer diner operators, those who took on the task of restoring and reviving such places almost as a romantic gesture, instantly understood Roadside.

Those people who worked their diners as they would any job, who concerned themselves more with the cost of eggs than with any romantic notion of their diner’s role in American history, didn’t see much value in even the smallest ad in the magazine, or in distributing it to their customers. Most diner operators at least tolerated our request to leave a stack on top of their cigarette machine or in some other out-of-the-way place, but a few didn’t even allow that.

The first owner to throw us out was John Gavrilis from the Olympia Diner in Newington, Connecticut. “Why should I advertise my competition in my diner?” he asked.

In the history of Roadside, only a handful took this stance, but as one reader asked, “Why would you not want to be a part of a magazine that’s telling the whole world what a great job you’re doing?” Go figure.

Nevertheless, as a block of owners, I had the most difficult time with the Greeks, and it would be a few more years before I finally figured out why. The owner of the Post Road Diner, Kathy Giapoutzis explained to me, “You have to understand that most of these people come from poor, blue-collar backgrounds, and they worked their way up in the business from the very bottom. Many of these guys started out as bus boys in their cousin’s place, saving up until they had enough money to buy their own diner. All they understand is ‘cost.’”

Suddenly, the crux of the matter went from one of ethnicity to one of economic background. Kathy’s description of the problem probably applied to any vocation associated with achieving the American dream.

Despite the challenge of finding new sources of advertising, we made a conscious decision to print as many copies of the magazine that we could afford, reasoning that we needed to get the word out as far possible. Issue 3 numbered 20,000 copies and issue 4 weighed in at 25,000.

Issue 5, the Fall ’91 issue also saw another milestone reached: Color! With a lead story featuring neon artist Steve Cohn of Worcester, we almost had to run color, and as luck would have it, we found a printer to do it for far less than we anticipated, and thus began a four-year relationship with Worcester County Newspapers. The prices at this new printer allowed for even greater press runs. Issue 7, Spring 92, actually imprinted 65,000 copies. How we would distribute that many became a cause for concern, but we reasoned, the more the better.

That issue also featured an important story for Roadside, the tour of the Mid-Atlantic. In October, 1991, Marjorie and I took a 3,000 mile trip from Boston to the Jersey Shore, through Philly to Pittsburgh, and then up to Rochester, New York, and then finally back to Boston. Along the way, we dropped stacks of Roadside at just about every diner we visited.

The trip began long-running relationships between Roadside and the Mayfair Diner, Highland Park Diner, and the Ingleside Diner as well as with Will Anderson, whose book, Mid-Atlantic Roadside Delights came along for the trip as our primary guide.

But what primarily fueled Roadside’s growth was publicity. Editors seemed to love this magazine. After all, what kind of nutcase would quit a secure job to publish a magazine about diners? Roadside made the pages of the Boston Globe, the New York Daily News, Insight Magazine, the Hartford Courant, and the Washington Post newswires.

With subscription checks rolling in, we expected to be renting office space and paying salaries by the middle of 1992.

Next time: The climb gets steeper