The Rise and Fall of Roadside Magazine

Teri (right) and Bob Soorian at the Bel Aire Diner Roadside Day in 1993.

Chapter 6

Before I parted ways with Craig and Guy, we had staged the first two “Roadside Days” together. Simply put, we sent out notices to people who lived within a certain radius around a given diner to come down and have lunch or dinner with us. I reasoned that this would help us better understand our audience by putting faces on the names, and thus make whatever kind of connections that might prove useful in the magazine's development.

Craig and Guy hosted one event at the Market Diner in Manhattan, and I hosted one at the Bel Aire Diner in Peabody, Mass. At the Bel Aire, I met Teri Dunn for the first time. She enthusiastically accepted the invitation to attend what became a fun, impromptu gathering of kindred spirits, and Teri shone as, probably, the most kindred of all.

The lead story featuring Richard Gutman and his new book, American Diner Then and Now, originally assigned and begun by Guy, fell into my lap. Guy had already interviewed Richard for the story, and now I'd have to revisit the Dinerman and start from scratch.

More importantly, I needed help editing the copy, and I remembered Teri's repeated offers get involved. So, I took her up on it, and discovered the offers, as well as Teri's enthusiasm and attitude, were quite genuine. Though I regarded Guy as a highly-talented writer, and had no doubts as to his abilities, in the end I just didn't get the sense that he and I shared the same attitude about our editorial mission. Right or wrong in that assessment, I simply wasn't comfortable with the arrangement.

With Teri, however, I felt quite at ease. We saw eye-to-eye on just about every aspect of the topics we covered, plus she had the necessary skills to help me hone my own writing abilities. We worked well together, and I enjoyed the company of both her and her husband Shawn. Their similar interests in beer, trains, and baseball only cemented the relationship stronger.

Tory Wesnofske checks her equipment at Al's Diner in Lawrence, Mass.

In 1993, Teri and I made the first attempts to broaden the editorial scope of the magazine. That summer, we featured a drive-in theater, Hathaway's in Hoosic Falls, New York. We illustrated that story with photography by Tory Wesnofske, a waitress I had met at the Blue Diner in Boston then attending photography school. Tory and I had taken several road trips together that previous year, and I soon discovered both the extent of her talent in her craft and the utility of having another photographer while I talked with the diner owners. Tory had previously shot the “Boy Meets Grill” feature, and provided shots for several other stories.

After Hathaway's Teri and I made a concerted effort to dilute the “diner content” of the magazine with other roadside-related features. Having deemed it a bit of an undiscovered roadside-paradise, I visited Avoca, New York, where the little town featured not only a diner, but a scenic train ride, a drive-in movie theater, but best of all, a motel with five cabooses for rooms. For that story, I experienced the nirvana of waking up in the cozy cupola of the caboose, looking out the window and seeing the neon “open” sign lit on the diner, with the Bath and Hammondsport Scenic Train chugging along behind the diner. With that issue, Roadside stepped out into the travel-guide arena, setting the stage for what eventually became the urban profiles.

Next on the itinerary, we paid a visit to Wellsboro, Pennsylvania. A chance meeting with the Dunham family and their subsequent invitation to stay at their lodge, coaxed me to profile this town that time forgot. I had previously visited the Wellsboro Diner for the first time a few months before and couldn't help but admire how well-kept this remote little town in North Central Pennsylvania stayed. The Dunham's convinced me to step further outside the diners-only coverage.

The readership received this expansion in scope well. Readers and the press still regarded Roadside as a “diner magazine.” The Providence Journal had dubbed Roadside, the “journal of record for the diner industry.” Anyone seeking information about diners called Roadside. Indeed, we fostered a spreading network to just about everyone involved in this of the preservation sub-culture, and eventually, you couldn't move a diner one town over without news of it reaching our office. By this time, we had become associated with folks like John Baeder, Will Anderson, Chris Carvell (who would become a diner salesman for Kullman Industries), Steve Harwin, Brian Butko, and Daniel Zilka, as well as scores of other fans and figures in the general preservation community.

Diner guys: Randy Garbin, John Baeder, Gary Zemola, and Larry Cultrera get together for a "summit" at Zip's Diner in 1993.

Unfortunately, we had also discovered the dirty secret of this little world: The various enmities, rivalries, and near-Machiavellian maneuverings of some of its characters. Initially dumbfounded by the situation when we began, I had soon learned to carefully straddle the fence between the various personalities. I realized, often the hard way, that in a field where people don't necessarily seek money, but credit for their research, unexpected controversies tend to flare up and borders get drawn. The success of Roadside, as I saw it, depended upon maintaining good relationships with everyone, so we took careful strides, to coin a phrase, to put credit where it was due.

Before the end of Roadside's tabloid period, we covered the topics of roadside ice-cream stands, the history of Diner Magazine, the industry magazine for diners during their heyday, a profile of Daniel Zilka and his attempts to found the American Diner Museum, a visit to Jerry Berta's Diner World in Rockford, Michigan, and a story by Susan Germain about the Victor mug, the quintessential diner coffee mug. This feature would rate as one of our most popular, but we soon heard from some diner owners claiming that their remaining Victors began to disappear at an accelerated rate after we published the story.

Despite the continued enthusiasm from Roadside's small, but devoted readership, the business had reached something of a plateau. In 1994, I moved to Worcester, Massachusetts from Watertown, partly to be closer to my new freelance gig at Darby O'Brien Advertising in South Hadley, Mass., and partly because Worcester still had all those diners. The cheaper rents didn't hurt, either.

Still a quarterly, the magazine had begun to fall behind its deadlines. Issue 19, a spring issue came off the press in June, 1995. Technically, still spring, but from a publishing standpoint, almost three months late. The readership didn't seem to mind, but the advertisers weren't too happy. We couldn't sell any time-sensitive ad space without emphasizing that we did not guarantee deadlines.

Also, by this time, subscriptions had topped off at around 1300, and we enacted a policy of distributing only in diners that advertised. Total circulation had dropped under 20,000, but in fairness, it probably never actually topped that level in any case. We surmised that far too many copies left in too many diners that didn't care, sent the bulk of our shipments quickly into the trash bins.

Still, we needed to do something to help push the magazine onto the next level, and that something came from a suggestion made by the new publisher of Game Room Magazine, Tim Ferrante. Convert it to a regular magazine format, he urged. It'll cost more, but we'd be able to get on newsstands, while the readership and potential advertisers will take it more seriously.

Having grown tired of designing tabloids, I signed onto the idea, and we put Roadside through its first hiatus after issue 19.

Next time: The phone call.