Thursday, December 5, 2013
GARDINER -- A1 Diner was quiet on Friday morning, aside from the jazz music playing in the background.
A1 Diner owners Mike Giberson, left, and Neil Anderson are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Gardiner landmark. The men took a break from preparing food Wednesday to discuss their restaurant.
Staff photo by Andy Molloy
Two men sat alone on blue vinyl-topped stools at the counter, a woman played with a baby sitting in a highchair at one end of the restaurant and a couple ate breakfast in one of the six wood-framed booths as jazz music played in the background.
For more than 60 years, customers have sat in the same booths and stools in a setting that's changed little since the Worcester Lunch Car Company built the diner at its factory in Massachusetts in 1946.
The current iteration -- named for a neon sign bought by the owners years ago in a Cape Cod antique shop -- celebrated its 25th anniversary this year as unassumingly as its operated for the last two-and-half decades.
Michael Giberson and Neil Andersen bought the diner from Giberson's father, making them the fourth owners.
It opened as Heald's, the name still painted in Gothic red lettering on its pale yellow exterior, in 1946. It later became Wakefield's and then Giberson's.
Giberson, 61, leaning forward last Wednesday in one of the booths with both hands clasped around a coffee mug, recalled the devastation the flood of 1987 caused his father's restaurant. He said his father didn't have enough insurance to cover the damages, so he was looking to sell the business.
"That was kind of the last straw for my father," Giberson said.
He and Andersen wanted to open a breakfast restaurant in Boston, where they lived, but they figured buying the Gardiner diner would be more doable than building from the ground up.
They bought the restaurant from Giberson's father in 1988 and rebranded it as A1.
Making it their own
"I think we always felt we could make it. It was just difficult," Giberson said. "After you make it through the first couple of years, you kind of feel like you made it because most businesses go under in those first couple years."
Giberson said most of his father's customers were older, and he and Andersen knew they had to attract a younger clientele if they were going to succeed.
"We change things drastically in the beginning. We upgraded the coffee. We changed the way things were made in the kitchen. We changed the basic recipes to make them a little bit better," Giberson said. "Then we started introducing our own style of cooking. We started attracting new people for sure. But the first years were definitely touch and go."
Since then, A1 Diner has garnered numerous mentions in local, statewide and national publications like the magazines "Yankee," "Maine" and "Down East."
The restaurants biggest break came in 2007 when the Food Network filmed an episode of "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives" with Guy Fierei at the diner. A 3-foot-tall poster for the show signed by Fierei is displayed prominently behind the counter and is one of the only adornments that remind visitors they aren't dining in the mid-20th century.
The most recent accolade came from "Travel + Leisure," which in June named A1 Diner one of America's best 25 diners.
Andersen and Giberson said that the media coverage has attracted more customers from both Maine and away, and kept the diner in people's minds whenever they're passing through Gardiner.
"Everytime that happens, things get better and better," Giberson said.
But to capitalize on the coverage, the two have had to continue to produce quality food and create new dishes to keep up with changing tastes.
Giberson said restaurants have to be more diverse in their offerings now than 25 years ago.
"People are way more food-savvy," he said. "They expect more, which is fine. It keeps us more on our game or in touch with what's going on, food-wise."
Boards above the counter still advertise the soups, dinner special and desserts, like homemade chocolate buttermilk pie, posted up with individual letters slightly askew and faded to varying shades of orange and pink.
Andersen and Giberson attribute their success to the food, made from scratch and from local sources when possible, and the atmosphere of the 1946 diner car.
Looking back and forward
Diners evolved from horse-drawn wagons selling food to workers in the 1800s. Improvements to the lunch carts allowed customers to inside or sit on stools, according to the American Diner Museum, and night wagons became popular in New England towns in the late-1800s.
Eventually the horse-drawn wagons were replaced with dining cars with electricity and then by the railroad-car look of diners like A1.
By 1960, many dining car companies, like the Worcester Lunch Car Company, had stopped producing diners. Of the 651 diners the Worcester company produced, less than 100 are still in operation, according to the 2004 book, "The Worcester Lunch Car Company."
Maine is home to at least two other Worcester diner cars -- Palace Diner in Biddeford and Miss Portland Diner.
Andersen said he sees the endangered diner car as a jewel. He thinks A1 and other diners have stayed popular because people want a place to gather in the community for good food and traditional, Americana atmosphere.
The broad spectrum of people who like A1 is another reason for their success, Giberson said. A hitchhiker can feel as comfortable as a businessman on a lunch break or a single person grabbing a stool at the counter, he said.
"I think everybody feels comfortable here, and that's one of the appeals of the contemporary diner," Giberson said.
Andersen and Giberson said they don't have a plan to get rid of their restaurant, but when they do, they'll likely sell to someone looking to continue operating the diner.
So A1 Diner will continue, for the time being, to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner six days a week and brunch on Sundays.
Waitresses will continue to slide plates across the worn pink marble countertop, families will continue squeezing into the blue vinyl-padded booths, babies will continue sitting in highchairs and the solo diners will continue to sit on stools, taking bites out of homemade slices of Americana.
Paul Koenig -- 621-5663