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Coffee, pie and the diner guys

State & Main is in business to help diner veterans and wannabe owners. Partners Garbin and Carvell want to help save this slice of Americana.
State & Main's first big project was this diner in Carteret, N.J. The owners picked State & Main to not only build the new space, but renovate the existing dining area and provide new equipment.
State & Main's first big project was this diner in Carteret, N.J. The owners picked State & Main to not only build the new space, but renovate the existing dining area and provide new equipment.Bw
/ Source: Business Week

When Mike Guinta purchased the Bay Way Diner in an industrial section of northern New Jersey in October, 2005, the fifty-year-old building was so caked with grease that it took Guinta and his partner, Matt McKeon, three endless days to clean it up. "The place had been completely run into the ground," says Guinta, who's also a fireman and owner of a 25-rig trucking company. Guinta considered knocking the building down and starting from scratch, but local residents urged him to keep the historical diner intact.

Instead of demolishing the building, Guinta opted for an overhaul. After gutting the entire building, Guinta's next task was restoring it to its vintage 1950s look, which included adding a new stainless steel facade. "The average contractor just can't do that," Guinta says. He finally found State & Main Associates, an Ambler, Pa.-company that helps diner owners with all aspects of planning, designing, and renovating "landmark restaurants." State & Main set to work outfitting the old, run-down, eight-seat diner for 2006 and beyond.

The makeover included a complete revamping of the restaurant: the stainless steel facade on the outside, Formica countertops, tile floor, and a wood-grained wall pattern. The diner reopened in three months, and now serves over 300 customers a day. With only four employees, it brings in about $6,500 a week. "The Food Network is even coming to film an hour-long special about our restaurant," says Guinta. "These guys are my saviors."

State & Main, or "the diner guys" as they're often called by clients and friends, are Randy Garbin and Chris Carvell, who have over 40 years of combined experience in the industry. Garbin, the creative director, specializes in marketing, advertising, and design, while Carvell, the director of operations, specializes in the business side — helping clients design their business plan, secure funding, and get a handle on front-of-the-house operations.

They have also added the services of Mark Blasch, their staff architect, and Carmino Silva, their construction foreman.

Garbin and Carvell are concerned with preserving the traditional diner architecture, ambience, and style — that welcoming environment. "There's a comfortable atmosphere in a diner. Someone knows you. It's a relaxed atmosphere where people can get to know one another. You can drink a cup of coffee for an hour and no one's going to say anything," says Otto Maier, the owner of O's Eatery in Chatham, N.Y., who hired State & Main to redesign his menu.

Breaking the chains
Garbin takes an artist's view of diner and menu design. To design a great diner menu, says Garbin, it's important to "draw from the design of the structure, and you want to pay proper homage to when the diner was built. I try to make them simple but stylish—something that you're not going to get tired of five years down the road," he says.

Garbin and Carvell are both passionate about what they do, working for the individual restaurant owners who need help facing chain restaurants. Carvell says that with the right guidance, diners can compete with the chains, despite the corporate backing that many of those establishments enjoy.

"If you've got six restaurants in a row — five are chains and one's a diner — the diner's going to give equal or better food quality and personalized service," says Carvell. "If he's good and has the right operation, he'll do 10 percent to 15 percent better than the chains."

Since Nixon
It's that passion to help the little guy that puts them in touch with people like long-time, Delaware-based, Smyrna Diner owner Sandy Margist, who found herself in a common situation for diner operators—she owned the diner but not the land below it. With her lease soon to expire, Margist found a new location and hired State & Main to consult on what will be a $2.5 million project designing and building an entirely new restaurant.

Garbin and Carvell also helped Margist design her business plan and get financing. By doing so, they weren't just helping a fellow entrepreneur, but the long-time employees that Margist has employed, for over 30 years in some cases. "There's a woman that's been working [at Smyrna Diner] since the Nixon administration," says Garbin.

Garbin says diner owners like Margist have two primary reasons for choosing to run a diner over a chain — to be able to pass a business and a legacy to their kids, and to give their employees a great long-term work environment. "Quietly, there's an entrepreneurial drive they all have — it's a desire do something of their own. At the same time, these people are concerned about their impact — on their community and their employees," says Garbin. A chain, he says, doesn't think twice about that.

Surprising success
Working for the little guy has brought big growth — and fast. Since opening their business in late 2004, State & Main's success has surprised even Garbin and Carvell. Carvell says he figures the company stands to take in almost $2 million in revenue this year — just 18 months into the venture.

Though their business is young, Carvell and Garbin's network continues to expand. They maintain a listing of all the diners for sale across the country ( “We started this business to answer the question of how people can get their own diner. These are the people we hear from the most," says Garbin. They also put out Diner Finder, a guide to 1,800 diners around the country, and a quarterly magazine called Roadside, "for the fans who track all the minutiae of diner culture," says Garbin.

Garbin and Carvell don't treat diners as a novelty, but rather as a part of traditional U.S. business and culture worth preserving. "When people hear about diners, they often take it lightly, but it's serious business. These are people doing really wonderful things," says Garbin. With the help of State & Main's "diner guys," current and would-be diner owners and aficionados have some powerful advocates on their side.