You Gotta Take the Sticky With the Sweet: Ashburn and Carl found opening business was not a ?cake walk.
You Gotta Take the Sticky With the Sweet: Ashburn and Carl found opening business was not a ?cake walk. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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To move the historic Avoca Diner from upstate New York to the District, Matt Ashburn and Patrick Carl hired the best guy in the business: Melvin Brandt, a former farmer and grain salesman whose company, M&M Rigging in Lancaster, Pa., has become virtually synonymous with hauling chrome.

By his own estimation, Brandt has relocated about 200 diners during a 20-year career, some weighing as much as 90,000 pounds. The little 38,000-pounder that Ashburn and Carl needed to move was going to be a breeze by comparison. But still Brandt and his team faithfully secured the necessary paperwork to bring the prefab structure to the Trinidad neighborhood, where the 1940s-era diner would be given another life as the Capital City Diner. The police escort that led Brandt’s crew to Bladensburg Road NE proved as much.

But the trouble began almost as soon as Brandt and his team pulled up to the cinder-block foundation at 1050 Bladensburg. A pair of D.C. Department of Transportation inspectors suddenly appeared, wanting to see if Carl had put down the necessary money in case the sidewalk was damaged during construction and installation. Carl showed him a receipt that indicated he and Ashburn had plunked down $2,400 for a permit, but the inspectors apparently weren’t satisfied. “That could be for any job,” Ashburn recalls one inspector telling the owners.

More municipal wonks soon arrived on site. The chief building official with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs wondered why Capital City Diner’s foundation didn’t match the plans submitted to and approved by DCRA. The department promptly slapped a stop work order on the project when too many questions remained unanswered: The agency needed to know if the proper inspections had been conducted on the foundation and if the owners’ engineer had signed off on the alterations to the original blueprints. The answers to these questions sometimes introduced more problems. When the architect was notified, for example, he e-mailed over a document—with the engineer’s forged signature on it.

The situation quickly dissolved into chaos. The 18-wheeler that hauled the diner was partially blocking traffic on Bladensburg Road, and an inspector threatened to issue a ticket to the chrome-and-tile newcomer if the owners didn’t move it off the sidewalk (which, of course, they couldn’t). Then came the ultimate slap: Ashburn and Carl learned that their architect, Derek Sielewicz, was not even licensed to work in the District.

“There was a whole lot that went wrong that day,” recalls Brandt, who is no stranger to seeing things go wrong when relocating diners. Ashburn was frustrated with the city, the city was frustrated with the lack of paperwork and inspections, and everybody was pointing fingers at Sielewicz. The diner had to sit there for hours until the mess could be sorted out.

It was a rocky introduction to the world of small business for Ashburn and Carl, two housemates who, almost as a lark, decided last year to buy the old Avoca Diner—off eBay for the bargain price of $20,000.

They spotted the listing on Sunday, March 15, and the next day after work, the pair drove to Avoca, N.Y., a tiny burg with a population of less than 1,000, and met the owner’s son-in-law at the diner. It was 12:30 a.m. Tuesday, and Ashburn and Carl had to review the diner in the dark with flashlights. The shuttered Avoca had no electricity. “I never saw it with the lights on…until a few months ago” when Pepco wired the diner to the juice, Ashburn says. “I just about cried, but in a good way.”

By Thursday, March 19, Ashburn and Carl had signed a letter of intent with owner Pat McMahon to buy the diner. The only requirement was that Ashburn and Carl promise to move the railcar-like structure from its current location by June 1. At that point, the pending owners weren’t even sure how they’d pay for it, let alone move it. “I didn’t have the money,” recalls Ashburn, an analyst with the Justice Department. “I didn’t have anything. I didn’t have two pennies to do this.”

Ashburn and Carl raised money wherever they could, which turned out to be almost everywhere but commercial banks. Financial institutions wouldn’t loan to a small business unless the owners had three years’ experience, Ashburn says. So the partners dipped into personal savings. They cashed out retirement funds. They worked off credit cards. They borrowed from family members. They found a sugar daddy in the business community who loaned them money. They even managed to secure a $35,000 loan from the Latino Economic Development Corporation. “Those guys are awesome,” Ashburn says about LEDC. “If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t have made it.”

Ashburn and Carl would need every cent of the approximately $145,000 they raised to get this vintage diner back into shape.

The diner that would become Capital City, by all accounts, rolled off the production line at the Paterson Vehicle Co. in Paterson, N.J., in 1947. It was part of the company’s line known as Silk City Diners, which were cheaper than many other models and may explain their prevalence in the Northeast, even today. Despite its birth date, this particular Silk City didn’t open for business until 1949 in Avoca, where three brothers created the Goodrich Center, which they christened with their family name. The center included the Goodrich Center Motel, a gas station, and the Goodrich Diner across the road. It was brilliant business plan, executed by Leigh, John, and Richard Goodrich, a trio of former farmers.

If you were headed to Buffalo from the east, recalls Melvin Brandt, you were essentially forced to drive through Avoca. “That’s the way you had to go,” says Brandt. “They accommodated the trucks going to Buffalo.”

Many years later, Bob Goodrich, the son of Leigh, doesn’t recall exactly when his family finally sold the diner, but he knows that it passed through many hands before it reached Matt Ashburn and Patrick Carl. So many, in fact, that Bob Goodrich can’t list them all, even after phone calls to family and friends.

Around 1951, however, the Goodrich brothers hired a manager by the name of Bill Gilbert, a former Army cook who relocated his entire family to Avoca for the job. It turned out to be a smart move. The Goodrich brothers sold Gilbert and his wife, Ruth, the diner sometime in the early 1950s for $43,000, and the couple quickly made the place their own. Bill worked the morning shift, dressed in starched white pants, white shirt, and white apron, while Ruth held down the evening shift wearing an equally stark uniform. At some point, they built a patio with a canopy, where many a Friday night fried fish platter was consumed.

The diner stayed open 24 hours a day, seven days a week; the Gilberts’ only day off was Christmas. The couple grossed about $100,000 a year and paid off their loan in three years. “The diner was known as the central meeting place for Avoca residents,” e-mails Lynn Dougherty, daughter of Bill and Ruth Gilbert. “A lot of people started their day with a hearty breakfast at the diner including homemade donuts that dad made. He also made homemade pies not with canned fillings of today, but made from scratch. He had all his own recipes.”

“I remember working in the kitchen and blanching french fries. I remember the diner consumed 100 lbs of potatoes a day,” e-mails Tim Gilbert, son of Bill and Ruth Gilbert. He has other memories, too: a Native American and Korean War veteran who washed dishes and another man who was burned in a horrible gas explosion. “I remember the waitresses who seemed like nice Aunts and the high school girls who worked in the summer,” Tim Gilbert writes, “I thought they were movie stars.”

The Gilberts sold the diner in 1966 to Henry Stanton, then the owner of the Goodrich Center Motel, for $50,000.

Randy Garbin, publisher of Roadside, a magazine devoted to diners, picks up the narrative some 27 years later, in 1993, when he paid a visit to Avoca, N.Y. At that time, the diner was called the Avoca, and it had a railroad caboose attached to it. The Avoca was “run by Brenda Remchuk, a warm-hearted, sultry-voiced woman with an honest love of cooking and people,” Garbin wrote in the magazine. “Brenda’s been running this diner-in-the-middle-of-nowhere for better than a year. Before this, she worked at Corning Glass for several years. She considers the diner to be a good career move.”

“I know that not long after we published that piece, the diner suffered a minor fire and that Brenda left the scene soon after,” Garbin e-mails me recently. “I don’t remember exactly, but I’m guessing that by 1996 or so, she was gone. The diner went through a succession of owners and eventually lost its caboose to parts unknown…I believe that the diner was closed more than it was open in that time anyway. I last laid eyes on it in early 2001 and it was for sale then.”

When Ashburn and Carl bought the Avoca Diner, it was no longer in operation. Despite its age and its considerable grease build-up (the result of no ventilation hood in the diner), the structure was in surprisingly good shape. “I instantly fell in love with it,” remembers Ashburn. The new love of his life would demand a lot of money and attention.

The diner required a number of structural changes to get it up to code. The roof needed repairs. A hood system, of course, had to be installed over the griddle. Two handicap- accessible bathrooms had to be built onto the back-end of the 15-foot-wide diner, and a hand sink had to be moved closer to the cooking area. Ashburn and Carl’s biggest hassles, however, came when trying to hook up the utilities.

Because of their limited budget, the partners tried to save cash by doing much of the work themselves. Carl, for example, got the specs from Pepco and dug a three-foot-deep trench to a manhole cover about 10 feet outside the diner’s front door; he bought the proper PVC pipe, placed it in the freshly dug trench, and then encased it in concrete. All the Pepco employee had to do, says Ashburn, was run the wire through the new pipe and connect it to the diner’s meter, about 45 minutes’ worth of work. Ashburn and Carl expected to save thousands with their work (and they probably did), but Pepco still charged them around $8,600.

The partners’ battle with Washington Gas was even more heated. The utility required Ashburn and Carl to install a pipe from the gas main at a cost of $5,600, despite the fact there was an existing one already on the property. But the pipe apparently wasn’t listed on any Washington Gas map, so it didn’t exist. With no other option, the owners tried to negotiate a lower price on the installation; they even involved the D.C. Public Service Commission, which ruled that the utility could calculate the diner’s future revenues over a 20-year period (instead of the usual two) to help offset the $5,600 “contribution” fee for the installation. No go. Washington Gas didn’t budge, and the partners used a credit card to cover the costs.

But nothing will compare to the diner’s first day in D.C. when everything seemed to go wrong. Public sentiment at the time was clearly with Ashburn and Carl, who were viewed as the latest victims sucked into the city’s bureaucratic black hole. Diner hauler Melvin Brandt summed up many people’s feelings on the city’s treatment of Ashburn and Carl: “We run into that shit all the time,” Brandt says. “It’s just getting uglier and uglier. Pretty soon you’re going to need a permit to breathe.”

The truth of that day in May, however, can’t be told in a neat good-guy/bad-guy narrative in which the city plays the heavy trying to thwart two upstart businessmen struggling to establish a sit-down eatery in a Northeast neighborhood desperate for one. The fact is, the city was behind this project, too. It was part of Mayor Adrian Fenty’s plan to revitalize Trinidad. The very land on which Capital City Diner rests used to be a used car lot, which Fenty shut down in 2008 as part of a city-wide crack down on unscrupulous auto dealers. Representatives with DCRA were in almost daily contact with Ashburn over the pending arrival of the diner. They wanted this to happen as much as the owners, which helps explain why the diner was rolled onto place before the day was over.

Nor can all the blame be placed at the foot of the architect, Sielewicz. Yes, according to the city, the architect forged a document, and, yes, the architect was working in the District without a license.

But those were not the only problems on that day in May. One of the biggest issues was the tight timetable under which Ashburn and Carl tried to build a foundation, get it inspected, and then place a diner on top of it. The owners had only a two-and-a-half-month window in which to accomplish those tasks. “They tied themselves to a schedule that did not match up with reality,” one city employee told me.

None of this, of course, really matters now that Capital City Diner has opened for business. The operation already feels right at home in Trinidad; part of it has to do with the diner’s visible age, which jibes with a street that hasn’t seen much modernization itself. Avoca’s slice of rural history somehow fits perfectly into this semi-stagnant piece of urban real estate in Washington, D.C. It helps that Ashburn and Carl have outfitted their diner with an antique refrigerator, a Hamilton Beach spindle blender, and a punch-key cash register; they’ve even staffed it with many residents of the neighborhood.

To walk into Capital City Diner is to walk back in time, to a period when, if nothing else, people were skinnier. The linoleum aisle between the counter stools and the booths provides just enough space for, say, a waitress taking an order and a customer paying a tab—but not necessarily for a third customer winding his way to the bathroom. Likewise, the average 21st century American may have to suck in his stomach to squeeze into a booth. You get to feel what it’s like to eat in a diner in the 1940s.

The food is anachronistic, too. It’s all pre-gourmet burgers and meatloaf and two eggs any way you like ’em, with a side of hash browns, of course. This is greasy, griddle-readied American food, the kind that makes you thrilled to visit a diner, in part because you know your meal will be filling and in part because you know you won’t have to think about it. During Saturday afternoon’s soft opening, I could see the effect that Capital City Diner was having on customers. (DCRA’s director, Linda Argo, ate there that morning and tweeted that the pancakes were “true diner style.” She liked the grits, too.) Some customers were taking pictures, some were gushing over a simple bacon sandwich, and some were just smiling to themselves, marveling perhaps over an era that they never enjoyed first hand.

I couldn’t help but wonder if Matt Ashburn and Patrick Carl weren’t doing the same thing: enjoying this historic eatery that they rejuvenated and allowing its second (or third or tenth) life to wipe away all the bad construction memories of the past eight months (including the deposit refund that DDOT still owes them). Or at least allowing them to focus on their next concern: how to actually run their popular new diner.

Capital City Diner, 1050 Bladensburg Road NE, (202) 396-3467.