History of Valentine Diners
Brint's Diner in Wichita is a survivor, straight from another age in America, an eating place that's not fancy but offers comfortable seats where you can get good food fast.
It's a place where, if you come back often enough, you're considered a regular member of the family. But Brint's, like several other such establishments dotted across Kansas, is not just any old diner. It's a Valentine.
Valentine Diners began their nearly 40-year career in Wichita, Kansas--an idea born of the Great Depression. They were constructed as eight-to-ten-seat diners that one or two people could operate. If you were good at it--if you served good food at a fair price and kept your customers happy--you could make a successful business of a Valentine. In an industry where nearly all major diner manufacturers were on the East Coast, the Kansas creation managed to ship its little pre-fabs all across the country. Valentines could be found along major highways to attract travelers, in industrial areas to attract workers, and in small towns where they might be one of the only (if not the only) restaurants available.
So what is a diner? The term is said to derive from "dining car," and in concept it was meant to offer the type of service that came from the old restaurants on wheels. Today the word is loosely used to mean any small restaurant, but among purists a diner can mean only one thing:
- a manufactured building,
- with a long counter and a few booths,
- that is transported to its site of operation.
The roots of the diner go back to 1872 when Walter Scott of Providence, Rhode Island, used a horse-drawn lunch wagon to serve meals to those who worked dusk to dawn. The lunch wagon gradually evolved from providing some shelter for customers to come in out of the elements to a structure placed on a foundation--but one that could be moved if necessary. Most of the best-known diner manufacturers on the East Coast, particularly in New York, New Jersey, and the New England states, produced the stainless steel structures that provide us with the image we have of the classic shiny silver 1940s and 1950s eateries. Because of the manufacturers' locations, diners didn't seem to be a Midwest phenomenon before the early twentieth century. But all of that was about to change.
Illinois-born Arthur Valentine came to Kansas in 1914. He was a natural salesman, hawking automobiles for a while in Great Bend but always hoping someday to be his own boss. Sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s Valentine and his wife, Ella, opened a restaurant in the small south-central Kansas town of Hazelton. They took a liking to the business, and others followed, including Wichita and Hutchinson (view image of the Shamrock Lunch), and eventually their "chain" of restaurants became known as the Valentine Lunch System.
On October 26, 1933, the Wichita Beacon announced that the Valentine Lunch System was about to open a new "$10,000 porcelain home" at the corner of Beacon Lane and Market Street in that city. The structure was built in sections by the Metal Building Company of Wichita and the Martin Perry Company of New York, who supplied the Wichita business. The cafe included a complete line of foods for its customers--short orders, regular dinners, lunches, and sandwiches--and, according to Arthur Valentine, curb service would be featured.
Around the same time Arthur Valentine was opening his cafes, another Wichita company became interested in portable buildings. In the 1920s the Ablah Hotel Supply Company not only had begun building small, portable lunchrooms, but it ran chains of restaurants in Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas. The Ablah Company may have turned out as many as 200 buildings, including those they operated under the names Little Palace and White Crown. At least one of those buildings had been built for Arthur Valentine's chain in Hutchinson.
The connection between Ablah and Arthur Valentine proved to be a fortuitous one. Valentine soon began working for Ablah as a salesman of portable lunch buildings while continuing to operate his Lunch System cafes. His employment with Ablah brought him into contact with Ablah's sheet metal workers, a fortunate connection for all involved. By the end of the 1930s the Ablahs wanted out of lunchroom construction, and Arthur Valentine stood ready to take over and continue the business under his own name.
Timing, though, was not on Valentine's side. As a new owner, he was only able to construct a few buildings before World War II made it impossible to acquire the materials necessary to produce the diners. As with many manufacturing businesses during the early 1940s, Arthur Valentine's would have to wait out the war.
Valentine Manufacturing Company formally incorporated in 1947, and with building materials now readily available, business took off. Arthur Valentine was finally his own boss. And it was gratifying knowing that part of the charm of the Valentine Diner was that owners of the new diners also had a chance to run their own businesses. A post-war sales brochure for the Valentine company in fact lauds the benefits of self-employment:
"The individual operator is assured of a permanent, self-sustaining revenue where he becomes his own boss and is not subservient to someone else. His immediate family may assist in the operation of each unit, as only two operators are required on each shift when it is running to capacity. During slow periods of business, one operator can do all the work and give good and efficient service, thereby holding the overhead to a minimum, with corresponding high profits."
Although the initial investment may have given pause to some new owners, Valentine enacted a system that made it easy for them to pay off the purchase price. Many diners were equipped with small wall safes located just inside the door. Operators placed a percentage of each day's profits in the wall safe, and a Valentine representative made regular rounds to remove the payments. Failure to make the payment brought the threat of, quite literally, removing the building.
How do you recognize a Valentine diner? They're best described as small boxes. Definitely not fancy and not even particularly attractive, the little square-sided structures were designed to be easily moved on flatbed trucks. Inside, stools were placed around a counter, which kept the customer out of the work area. There usually were no booths, and the size and design of the diner depended on the type of business the owner operated; operators who were willing to provide curb service needed their pick-up window situated away from the cook and/or dishwasher.
A 1948 ad in the Wichita Eagle implies that Valentine had already shipped buildings to 38 states, although this figure may also have included Ablah's business before the war. Each diner built by Valentine had affixed to one wall a small metal plate proclaiming it an official Valentine diner. The total number of diners in Wichita is not known, but 2,000 is a minimal estimate. And always thinking of new business opportunities, the astute entrepreneur also advertised a line of stainless steel restaurant fixtures.
Arthur Valentine died in 1954, having already relinquished some of his duties because of health concerns. The company struggled on for a few years, and in 1957 it was purchased by the Radcliff family. The diners built during the Radcliff years were kept small for portability, but the design allowed for additional sections for booths. Furthermore, new structures were created for other uses. Arthur Valentine had designed some buildings for ice cream stores and apparently for liquor stores after Prohibition was repealed in Kansas in 1949, but the Radcliffs went further, making car washes and drive-up banks, to name a few. The diversification was necessary to attract business, but it wasn't enough to keep up with the competition brought on by developing burger chains and general urban growth. By the end of the 1960s Valentine was slowly fading away, and by 1975 it was gone for good.
Today, the Kansas Historical Society locates existing Valentine Diners across the United States and documents the history of the famous Wichita diner company. In some places, individuals or groups have purchased diners for personal use or to restore them to their original function. For example, the Lakewood Heritage Center in Colorado has plans to restore its Valentine building. A number of diners survive, and although many have been converted for other uses, many more stand abandoned and deteriorating.
Fortunately, several Valentines are still operating as diners in Kansas and can be found in Wichita, Liberal, Welda, Topeka, and Junction City, as well as at locations beyond our state's borders. "The diner is like a family reunion every day," said Danny Dean, owner of Brint's Diner in Wichita. But it was a contented customer who may have been put into words the legacy of this Kansas creation: "One thing is sure," he said, "you'll find a lot of heart in the old Valentine Diner."
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