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Hollywood Diner gets a reprieve

When Alan and Bonnie Kingman read about plans to close the Hollywood Diner, they arranged to take a long lunch Wednesday and trek down from Lutherville to pay what they thought would be a last visit.

Cheryl Townsend

The couple, both being interested in the 1950s era, got married on Halloween in 1992 and held their wedding reception at the diner, best known for being the hangout of characters in Barry Levinson’s 1982 movie “Diner.”

“We were worried we’d never get to come again,” said Bonnie Kingman, who sat next to her husband at the bar as they flipped through an album full of pictures from their wedding.

But despite the reports and rumors that the diner would be closing, owner Cheryl Townsend confirmed Wednesday that it would remain open at least until the end of the year.

“A lot of things are going to change,” Townsend said, including the menu, which will include a combination of Caribbean cuisine and soul food. She also said she may start opening for dinner, and that she would be collaborating with a partner, whom she would not identify, to help with finances.

The diner has changed hands many times since Levinson donated it to the city of Baltimore after finishing the movie. Townsend reopened the eatery — at Holliday and East Saratoga streets — in March after moving her Red Springs Café and catering company there from Calvert Street.

Alan and Bonnie Kingman outside the Hollywood Diner during their wedding reception on Halloween 1992

After enjoying a profitable first month, the diner’s clientele began to wane. And as the weather warmed up, Baltimore’s well-known food truck industry began to cut into her business, she said.

Despite being only a few blocks from City Hall, courthouses, Mercy Medical Center and other downtown establishments, she was not able to attract enough customers serving breakfast and lunch to stay profitable.

Her sales in summer dipped so much, in fact, that she considered closing her doors.

“Your sales shouldn’t suffer that much in summer,” Townsend said. She wouldn’t offer sales figures, but said that she saw a major decline over her first couple of months in business.

Last week she posted a sign on the door saying that Friday, Sept. 23 would be the facility’s last day as a café but that she would keep operating her Red Springs Catering business there.

The city of Baltimore, however, which owns the Hollywood Diner property, would not allow her to keep it open just for catering, she said. Part of the agreement to operate the diner includes a partnership with the Chesapeake Center for Youth Development. At-risk youths from the CCYD work under Townsend at the diner, helping in the kitchen and serving customers.

So the diner’s neon “Open” and “Hollywood Diner” signs were still glowing Wednesday, and about two dozen customers came in for lunch between noon and 1:30 p.m. — which was a surprise to Townsend, who had seen very little business in recent weeks.

Now that she is in transition, the menu at the Hollywood Diner is mostly limited to sandwiches and salads. She keeps the menu books hidden behind the counter and writes the available items on a dry-erase board up front. When customers ask for a menu, she smiles and points to the board.

With no servers on staff or youths from CCYD, Townsend is keeping things going mostly on her own — hosting, serving, cooking, collecting tabs and cleaning.

Her 30-year-old son, Jamar, has been helping her out in the kitchen, and she also employs a dishwasher who goes by the name “Blue.”

Townsend said the diner was in such disrepair when she took over that it increased her overhead well above what she had expected. The freezer would sometimes break, which forced her to restock her inventory when the food went bad.

She said she expected to spend 30 percent of her sales on food but eventually ended up spending 60 percent.

“I blame nobody but myself,” Townsend said. “It’s been a learning curve for me.”

But Townsend hasn’t given up.

She’s aware that the location has historical value to the city, but she did not have the resources to properly market it, she said. But with a Broadway musical version of “Diner” in the works, she is hoping for a revival of interest.

Alan and Bonnie Kingman outside the Hollywood Diner on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011

She has even mused about inviting singer/songwriter Sheryl Crow — who is writing the music and lyrics for the adaptation — and Levinson to the diner for a meal.

The nostalgic Kingmans hope Townsend can keep the diner open.

“You could really do a lot,” said Bonnie Kingman. “It’s part of a particular era.”

They hadn’t visited the diner for about 10 years, but they agreed that things hadn’t changed much.

“It looks a little older,” Bonnie Kingman said. “But then again, so do we.”

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The Hollywood Diner was the subject of a Daily Record video/print series about starting a small business after the Great Recession, called “Sweat Equity.” Click here to read the story and watch the video from March below.

Sweat Equity: Hollywood Diner gets new owner, vision