Community involvement the key to success
Diners can be a bit nostalgic. Most people have favorable impressions of them as places where you take the entire family to get lots of comfort food at affordable prices, and they can remind us of the place our grandparents took us out to eat as kids.
At least that is the kind of public perception Ken Weinstein, owner of the Trolley Car Diner and Deli in Mt. Airy, believes has allowed his diner to succeed and remain open long enough to celebrate its 10th birthday anniversary this month. Well, that and “a lot of goodwill from customers,” said Weinstein last Friday afternoon in an interview.
The diner celebrated its 10-Year Anniversary Celebration with a community birthday party for hundreds of locals Sunday, August 8, at the diner and deli at 7619 Germantown Ave. “We wanted to say thank you to the community for being good to us,” said Ken. “Hundreds of people came out. We raised over $200 for the Germantown Soccer Club with the dunk- the-owner tank.”
Before getting into the restaurant business, Weinstein was an aide to then-City Councilwoman Happy Fernandez. After leaving City Hall, in 1996 he purchased an extremely dilapidated 250-year-old building at Germantown and Gowen Avenues which had been vacant for three years. He restored it to pristine condition and opened a restaurant there, Cresheim Cottage Café.
Ken eventually sold the restaurant in 2005 to two women, but when Germantown Avenue was completely closed off for nine months in 2007-2008 due to PennDOT road construction, the restaurant was essentially starved out of business. The property was reopened last December as Avenida, a Mexican restaurant.
The closed road also choked the Trolley Car Diner and Deli, but Weinstein was able to hang on, despite having to lay off some workers temporarily, because of his strong community involvement, low prices and the fact that many customers literally live just minutes away. “If there is one reason when we got close to closing but didn’t, it’s because of the employees,” he said. “I just couldn’t put 50 people out of work.”
When Weinstein opened the Trolley Car Diner 10 years ago, it was much more of a community development project than a food project, said Weinstein, who bought the “terribly dilapidated eyesore and safety hazard” that formerly housed a Roy Rogers fast food restaurant and then sat vacant for nine years, “when people used to break in and party inside.”
Weinstein oversaw an extensive renovation of the property; he put in a new bathroom and kitchen and added on to the sides of the structure. He also bought Palooka’s Diner (the actual building and its insides), an old-school diner that had been a fixture in Wilkes-Barre for years, and had it trucked to Germantown Avenue, and the Trolley Car Diner was born.
“I looked around Northwest Philadelphia, and I didn’t see a real family-friendly food place,” said Weinstein. “It seemed like common sense to bring a family spot to the community that could be a gathering spot for eating. We took an eyesore and a safety hazard and turned it into something wonderful, and as a result, we were able to change the way the community was viewed.”
And over the years, the owner of the Trolley Car Diner has developed a great reputation in the community for loyalty; involvement with local churches, non-profit organizations and other worthwhile causes; and hands-on management. Area residents know that Weinstein does not just take the money and run. And his staff has worked to cement community relations.
For example, in 2002 the diner initiated a program called Helping Hands Weeks. Each week of every year, the diner adopts two organizations. Members, friends and neighbors of the organizations are encouraged to eat at the diner during that week. In exchange, the diner gives 15 percent of what the members and friends of the organization spend back to the organization as a donation.
Since the program began, the diner has given more than $100,000 back to local organizations, including the Wissahickon Charter School and East Mt. Airy Neighbors. This year, the diner helped raise close to $1,000 for the Philadelphia Recreation Department to help keep city pools open during the summer.
“It’s a win-win for everybody,” said Weinstein. “We love to give back to the customers and the community as a way to say thanks.”
Another method was used by Weinstein in July to bring the community together. Every Saturday night that month, he and his staff hosted a movie night at the Mt. Airy diner where families, lovers, friends and whoever were encouraged to come out to enjoy a movie on a large screen. This summer’s showings were “Goonies,” “A League of Their Own,” “Up” and “Grease.”
The diner is also an ice cream shop that offers homemade ice cream from Nelson’s, located in Royersford. Ice cream became part of the diner’s menu six years ago. Weinstein had the opportunity to buy a derelict trolley car from Septa seven years ago. He bought the old car, shipped it to Pittsburgh to be restored, and after it was shipped back, Ken had it transformed into an ice cream shop, which has been right next to the diner since 2004.
In addition to being a restaurant owner, Weinstein is a community activist. He is chairman of the Mt. Airy Business Improvement District and founder of the Mt. Airy Teacher’s Fund, a non-profit organization that gives $10,000 a year in small grants to Mt. Airy public school teachers who, according to Weinstein, “have a hard time getting resources. And they are on the front line, so they need our help.”
Each year for the past 10 years, the diner and its staff have also adopted a school or recreation center in Mt. Airy or Germantown and helped to clean it and repaint walls. “For me it’s a way to save buildings,” said Weinstein. “It’s an economic redevelopment project. I live here in Mt. Airy. My friends live here. We want it to be a nice place to live. We are in our 10th year at the diner, and we are having our best year yet.”
Weinstein also recently opened the Trolley Car Café, a BYOB sister to the Trolley Car Diner, at 3269 S Ferry Rd. in East Falls. According to Weinstein, “My pride and joy is our kitchen garden. We are using fresh vegetables and herbs from the garden in many of our menu items … ” For more information about the East Falls property, call 267-385-6703 or visit www.trolleycarcafe.com. For information about the Trolley Car Diner, Deli and Ice Cream Shop, call 215-753-1500 or visit www.trolleycardiner.com