Giving a Historic Diner New Life
Established by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Register of Historic Places lists locations throughout the United States that are deemed to hold historical significance. The register includes sites such as homes once occupied by important figures, entire districts and neighborhoods of towns and cities, and commercial properties. The four main criteria for a location to be considered for the NRHP are:
A. Property is associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history.
B. Property is associated with the lives of persons significant in our past.
C. Property embodies the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction or represents the work of a master, or possesses high artistic values, or represents a significant and distinguishable entity whose components lack individual distinction.
D. Property has yielded, or is likely to yield, information important in prehistory or history.
In accordance with criterion C, many American diners are submitted for recognition and subsequently granted a place on the NRHP because the structure dates back several decades and exhibits that classic chrome-plated architecture reminiscent of old train dining cars. In some cases, these historic diners have been passed down through generations of one family, but most of them have been bought and sold to other entrepreneurs who hope to revitalize the spaces with new businesses.
To learn more about what it takes to turn a historic diner into a modern business, we spoke with Roy Brennan, owner of Beefy’s Burgers in Reno, Nev.
Reviving a Valentine Diner
At the corner of Arroyo and Virginia Street in Reno, a cheerful green and white building greets passersby with large decals promising Coca-Cola and air conditioning. Although it’s home to a relatively new business, Beefy’s Burgers, the humble structure has a long history dating back to the 1940s.
“It arrived by flatcar on the Virginia [& Truckee] Railroad in 1947 and has been at its current location the entire time,” explains Roy Brennan. “The building is a classic Valentine diner made in Wichita, Kansas, and numerous diners made by them can still be found throughout the U.S.”
According to the Kansas Historical Society, these compact buildings were manufactured from the 1930s to the 1970s. Designed to seat only a handful of guests, the Valentine diners were small enough to be operated by a single person.
The building has housed various foodservice operations over the years – including Landrum’s Hamburgers when it first opened in the 1940s – but its age still poses some cosmetic and operational challenges.
“The previous owner missed some big details but we have overcome them,” says Brennan. “I tackle problems as they happen and fix them immediately. But I have never tampered or modified with the size or shape of the structure. I just try to keep it safe and sound and functional.”
Brennan, who purchased Beefy’s from the previous owner, notes that despite some strategic difficulties sometimes brought on by its compact size, he was drawn to the historic location in part because of the lower costs associated with operating a business there versus investing in a larger, newer building for the acquired burger business.
“The building is charming, small, [and] easy to manage,” says Brennan. “The small size means you must be very thoughtful making any change or repair. Every square inch of space is utilized.“
Despite the building’s age and NRHP distinction, most passersby aren’t aware of its historical significance and see Beefy’s as a regular neighborhood burger joint.
“The building speaks for itself, [but] Reno has always been a transient town so many people I speak to have never heard of it,” explains Brennan. “Of course, all the old-timers remember it. While many people treat it like an icon, many of the younger crowd do not and all they care about is the food. We have to focus on keeping the food quality and service high.“
Judging by Beefy’s Yelp page, where it has earned a 4.5 star rating and customers rave about everything from the milkshakes to the chili cheese fries, Brennan’s efforts have paid off.