The latest bitch fight in the local restaurant scene is hung not on a stolen stollen recipe nor the consequence of a diva chef’s tantrum. This time, the foodie fight is wrapped around an old Phoenix favorite: our limited knowledge of architectural history.
Last week, social media erupted with complaints that the recently opened Handlebar Diner, a restaurant housed in a Valentine diner in Mesa’s master-planned Eastmark community, was a wholesale rip-off of downtown Phoenix mainstay Welcome Diner. Word from Michael Alan Babcock III, the owner of Welcome (and Welcome Chicken + Donuts, as well as a new Welcome location in Tucson), came via Facebook. In a long post there, Babcock went easy on chef Adam Allison, who’s running Handlebar, but carped that Eastmark exercised “complete exploitation of my identity.”
He also pointed out that Eastmark repeatedly offered Babcock the opportunity to run Handlebar before turning to Allison, who recently brought us Left Coast Burrito Company.
The truth is only slightly more interesting than the Facebook nitpicking. The griping tends to be about how Handlebar, whose menu features modern diner fare with a Southern twist, ripped off Welcome’s red-and-white-striped, metal-sided aesthetic. In fact, this diminutive, candy-cane inspired look isn’t a Welcome Diner thing. It’s a Valentine diner thing.
These bitty diners are named for Illinois-born hawkmaster Arthur Valentine, who opened a wee, metal-framed restaurant in tiny Hazelton, Kansas, sometime in the 1920s. His diner caught on, and so Valentine opened several others in Kansas towns and cities. Eventually, his chain became known as the Valentine Lunch System, where curb service and outdoor seating was always a feature of these tiny, usually metal-clad buildings.
After World War II, Valentine teamed up with a metal-siding company and began manufacturing Valentine diners, which he offered to franchisers interested in being self-employed. The concept took off and, by the early 1950s, official Valentine diners (each of them certified with a special metal plaque affixed to an interior wall) were everywhere. It’s estimated that more than 2,000 little metal diners were constructed by 1960, after which competition from national burger chains like McDonald's and Red Barn spelled doom for the Valentine diners, which had gone the way of poodle skirts by the mid-1970s.
When Handlebar opened, Babcock says, he and his staff were inundated with questions about whether Handlebar was a Welcome restaurant, or a rip-off.
“Both Valentines are painted the original Valentine colors,” Babcock said in an e-mail. “To the average customer and the die-hard Welcome fan both, the building, the aesthetics, the color palette, and the menu are all things they have associated with Welcome Diner. It didn’t help that Handlebar described itself as a Southern-inspired, Southwestern-executed diner, which is something we are known for.”
Welcome’s motto, “We look forward to serving you,” even showed up on the Handlebar homepage, says Babcock, who eventually took to Facebook to comment on the similarities and to clear up any confusion about the two diners.
Welcome Diner, long a popular downtown attraction, did utilize the Valentine concept before Handlebar. But the true innovator here isn’t Babcock or Welcome’s popular American cuisine, which is distinctly different from Handlebar’s fare. It was local artist, real estate developer, and entrepreneur Sloane McFarlane who renovated that first Valentine, and it housed other culinary projects before becoming the home of Welcome Diner. That location, which had been sitting empty for more than two decades, is managed but not owned by McFarlane. Eastmark’s Valentine came from Colorado, according to Allison.
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“There was never a plan to create another Welcome Diner,” Allison says. “I would never have wanted to do so. This was an opportunity for me to make my food out of a brick-and-mortar, after operating food trucks for the past five years.”
Allison says he and Babcock have been talking this week about how to assure hungry fans Allison isn’t ripping off the Welcome vibe.
Maybe they could post something on Facebook.