If you ever stop by the 371 Diner on Edgewood Drive along the Baxter strip, the eatery has the look of a gleaming, chromium time capsule from a time of slick hair, poodle skirts and jailhouse rock.
That’s the ethos of the 371 Diner, a throwback to the iconic truck-stop diners of the ‘50s that looked like some sleek, retro-futuristic, nickel-plated trailer home with neon signs and angular elements of Art Deco. Beyond its physical elements, the 371 Diner is reminiscent of a simpler time, when notions of craftsmanship and personable service seemed just that much more prevalent in American life.
It’s that combination — an emphasis on craftsmanship and personable service — that lends the 371 Diner its charm in the modern era, said co-owner Lee Zahler, who along with her business partner, Rod Hafften, have operated the restaurant for the last five years.
“That has always been our strength — the customer service and service with a smile,” Zahler said. “We have a good team out front. They're just so eager to help you, to actually get what you want for your meal experience. … We have an amazing team there and we've been able to hold on to this team, and continue to build to it.”
“So everybody in Baxter would say, ‘You know, it's a challenge to find a good team,’' Zahler added. “Our staff is like family and they really can hit home runs.”
Half a decade ago, she said, the diner was in freefall, with its then owner on the way out and an increasingly disgruntled customer base, when she and her partner decided to buy the place in July 2016. Much of the diner’s reputation rests in the Americana-inspired menu that’s just as reminiscent of the ‘50s as the building's gleaming exterior, Zahler said, of which breakfast deals — particularly omelets — half-pound burgers and handcrafted milkshakes are certainly highlights.
Much like just about every business — especially fellow members in the hospitality/tourism sectors — the 371 Diner had its fair share of highs and lows during the coronavirus pandemic. Much like its contemporaries, the owners and employees of 371 Diner had to learn how to be flexible, creative and opportunistic in order to eek out a sustainable profit during some of the toughest economic times in living memory.
“Things were pretty slow around there, but we were able to minimize our staff and still be open for the customers that needed a place to go and needed food,” Zahler said. “Our regular loyal customers really, really supported us through, even though they couldn't come in and enjoy the sights of the diner. They still got to say hi and get their food to go and keep in touch with us.”
Keeping in touch virtually versus face-to-face is a bit of a tricky proposition, especially for a restaurant that hangs its hat on old-fashioned, personable interactions in the confines of its restaurant, Zahler said. Sure, Zahler and Hafften remained active on Facebook and other social media outlets to maintain a presence in the lives of their customer base, but unlike many businesses, Zahler said they avoided going digital with their operations and mostly avoided a website or interactive setup that many restaurants gravitated toward in 2020.
The answer for that is simple. While it’s certainly possible to form a good team of managers, line cooks, serving staff, and the like, Zahler said, going digital means a business has to hire additional staff and dedicate more man hours to that end of the business. Even if 371 Diner hadn’t downsized its staff and streamlined its operations, Zahler said, there isn’t a viable pool of applicants big enough to meet the demands of the restaurant.
As always, Zahler said, it’s about the pursuit of excellence — whether that’s a close focus on professional and friendly customer service, or tweaking the appearance of the diner so that it’s ‘50s ambiance remains an immersive blast to the past.
“Each year we try to do something to improve the face of the diner. With businesses on hold throughout 2020, we kept looking at remodeling and doing more improvements,” Zahler said. “It’s just about getting back on track again. We're happy to still be there. We know that there's a lot of restaurants that have made the decision to not continue on, so I guess we're just happy to be able to thank our loyal customers through this year.”