It’s the weekend before the Fourth of July, and The Diner is doing its final breakfast service at the corner of 12th and Harney streets.
Business is brisk, but not frenzied. There’s still a seat or two at the bar, but if you want a booth, there’s no line. Contrast that to the week before, when the College World Series was happening: the line was out the door, and patrons hoping to get a final taste of The Diner’s ’50s-style ambiance were told to expect an hour wait.
One reason for The Diner’s relatively unassuming final weekend was because it was only closed for about three days (the typical duration for your standard resurrection). You see, The Diner is already up and running in its new location at Billy Frogg’s. Owners Ken Schroeder and Rick Daly planned to serve breakfast there on July 4.
“Oddly enough, the Fourth of July is a huge breakfast day,” Schroeder says.
Even though The Diner lives on, Schroeder, Daly, and its patrons lamented on the loss of the institution that has been around since 1983. A few diners on its last weekend didn’t even know The Diner was going away. Other longtime regulars followed Daly and Schroeder’s saga closely.
Connie MacNabb brought her grandchildren for one final breakfast. As her grandkids teased one another and bounced on the booth, MacNabb looked over the menu. Connie and her late husband, James, began going to The Diner in 1980s. The place reminded her of Lake Okoboji.
“It’s terrible we always get rid of all of our landmarks,” MacNabb says.
Roy House has been a daily Diner eater for years. His go-to is the No. 4: two eggs, hash browns, toast, and a choice of meat (his being the oven-cooked bacon). For House, it’s the best bacon he’s ever tasted. And while he’s happy to see The Diner live on, he’d rather have it at the (now) old location.
“I think it sucks. This is really the only old-style diner we have around here,” House says.
There are still traditional diners around Omaha, among them Lisa’s Radial Cafe, Harold’s Koffee House, and Leo’s Diner. But the loss of The Diner was especially bitter to some because of how its closing played out.
Schroeder and Daly were shocked when they first heard they were going to lose their restaurant this past February. Daly received a text from a KETV reporter, asking about The Diner’s fate. Daly says he didn’t know what the reporter was talking about. He then learned about how Michael Henery, who owned the plot of land where The Diner sat, sold it for $1.5 million (he bought it in 2006 for $650,000). Daly was then told of a planning meeting about a Marriott that was going to be constructed. Daly’s first thoughts were panic-inducing.
“We’re going to be jobless and homeless,” Daly says, recalling his initial fears.
Schroeder says he harbors no bitterness toward Henery. Though their business relationship was sometimes contentious, Schroeder says they eventually became friends.
“[Henery] got a reputation of being crusty and harsh, and he lived up to that,” Schroeder says. “You can be mad at him for a lot of reasons, but you can’t be mad at him for selling the diner. He’s in his 80s. He wants to liquidate his assets.”
For the first few weeks after hearing the news, Schroeder says The Diner’s fate changed almost daily. At first, he was told they had to be out by April 15. Then, July 1. Eventually, they were allowed to stay through the College World Series.
Throughout the spring, Schroeder and Daly weighed their options. Physically moving the building to a new location wasn’t an option. Nor was setting up The Diner inside the new Marriott (Schroeder says the company wanted their own eating establishment). They considered moving The Diner into the old Dixie Quicks location in Council Bluffs, but the building’s owners were looking for a “white tablecloth-style restaurant,” Schroeder says.
Finally, John Feddin, owner of Billy Frogg’s, reached out to Schroeder and Daly.
“I heard they were leaving, and I felt so bad,” Feddin says.
Feddin proposed that Daly and Schroeder could expand Billy Frogg’s menu. In addition, they could also take over the old Tea Smith location (which is next to Billy Frogg’s). Daly purchased an espresso machine, and christened the new coffee shop “The Diner Guy’s…Java Daddies.”
Schroeder says one reason they chose to continue at Billy Frogg’s was to keep The Diner family intact. He didn’t want any employment gap for their existing employees. For Schroeder, The Diner is literally a family affair. It’s where he proposed to Daly.
In August 2016, Schroeder closed The Diner early, and set Daly off to run some errands. While Daly was gone, Schroeder turned The Diner into what looked like the set of ABC’s The Bachelor—complete with candles and roses. Daly says about 250 people came to their wedding; half were regulars of the Diner.
On its last weekend, even the radio seemed to be playing on people’s emotions. Dave Mason’s “We Just Disagree” played over the PA, summing up the feeling of resignation for many:
“There ain’t no good guy, there ain’t no bad guy. There’s only you and me, and we just disagree.”
In the kitchen, Florencio Salgado was finishing an omelet and tending to another batch of hash browns. Salgado has worked at The Diner for almost 30 years. Salgado says he spends more time at The Diner than he does at home. He says the new digs are going to be a tighter fit than his old workstation. Still, he says he is looking forward to The Diner’s next chapter.
“What we have is really beautiful,” Salgado says.
Visit @omahacoffeetruck on Facebook for the latest manifestation of The Diner, aka “The Diner Guy’s…Java Daddies.”
This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.