Seventy-five years after its founding, the oldest diner manufacturer in America is still serving up retro classics.
Main Street: 1 Kullman Corporate Campus Drive, Lebanon, NJ 08833
Time was, Harold Kullman couldn't get by on just flashy metalwork or fancy swivel stools. In the 1950s, at the peak of the diner craze, the Kullman Dining Car Co. was one of a dozen rivals duking it out to corner the market. "Everybody was trying to undercut everybody else," recalls Kullman, now the company's white-haired 77-year-old chairman.
Kullman's business, founded by his father, Sam, in 1927, is the oldest diner manufacturer around. Rechristened Kullman Industries Inc., it is run today by his son, Robert, 55. Granddaughter Chantal, 30, works in sales. The company has grown to 275 employees and nearly $60 million in revenues. In 1999 it moved to new headquarters set on 88 acres in Lebanon, N.J.
Kullman's ready-built diners -- counters, grills, pie cabinets, and milk-shake mixers included -- are scattered along roadsides nationwide: Archie's in Sioux City, Iowa; the Sit Down in Hadley, Mass.; and local landmarks like the Elgin Diner and the Forked River Diner in New Jersey, arguably the diner capital of the world. Diner historians say the company's long-standing boast about building the "Cadillac of diners" isn't just big talk. "Kullman's diners are very stylish and built to last," says Richard J.S. Gutman, author of American Diner Then and Now.
The company's designs evolved in the mid 1960s, when colonial and Mediterranean models replaced the classic Art Deco look. Then, with the advent of fast food, demand for new diners shrank altogether. So Kullman drew on its expertise in modular construction and began assembling schools, banks, and prisons. The company has lately moved into embassy building by constructing bug-free consulates for U.S. diplomats in Kyrgyzstan and Guinea-Bissau.
Yet diners remain central to Kullman's identity. Its lunchroom has all the trappings of an old-style diner, and Robert's office is filled with diner paintings and memorabilia. During the lean 1970s, the company hung in, doing at least a few diner jobs annually. So it was ready when restaurateurs hit on retro diners as the next big thing. "We did the first new old-classic diner in D.C.," says Robert.
Last year the company shipped 5 classic diners (about 5% of total sales), including 2 to Germany, where a group has launched Sam Kullman's Diner, an American-style chain named after Kullman's patriarch. "If the Germans get going, we could be shipping 10 diners over there a year," says Robert. If nothing else, the new diners offer a shot at immortality. Their Kullman-inspired menu items include Harold's Tuna Pizza and Robby's Ham and Cheese.