As it turns out, one of the easiest chores in reopening the Chuck Wagon was moving the dilapidated Mountain View Co. diner car halfway across the United States.
Or at least that’s how it sometimes seems these days for owners Tom and Sally Ketchum. After more than two years of renovations, the diner that spent its first five decades in an urban area of Illinois at last reopened for service on a rural stretch of Western Turnpike in Princetown.
But the symbolic end of the Ketchums’ tireless effort to restore the stainless steel diner marked the beginning of a new type of work: Feeding customers. Since the diner opened early last week, they’ve had to deal with a bakery delivery that didn’t show up, a malfunctioning air conditioning unit, an iced-up freezer compressor and a ceaseless stream of ravenous customers drawn to the kitschy allure of the 1950s-era diner, the town’s only full-service restaurant.
“I straightened her out,” Tom says, referring to his wife. “I told her I’m only working seven days a week, not eight.”
“I had him scheduled for nine” Sally says.
Jokes aside, the Ketchums now spend the better part of 15 hours a day at their diner, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. And so far, they’ve had no shortage of customers. Even at 4 p.m. Monday, the Ketchums had a steady procession of customers popping into the curious diner wedged between a gas station and a body shop.
During the daytime, it’s almost as if the stainless steel exterior acts like a beacon to hungry travelers. At night, it’s the giant neon cowboy that draws attention. The restored 1-ton aluminum and steel sign stands 13 feet high and is clearly visible to traffic whizzing by.
Inside, everything is authentic 1950s. The soda fountain, the jukebox, the pie case and even the coffee machine are restored pieces Tom collected during the years he spent restoring the diner.
View old photos of diner
To view photos of the diner when it stood in Champaign, Ill., as well as photos of the sign after it was transported to Albany, click HERE.
“The only things that are not original are the Pepsi machine and the juice machine,” he says, gesturing to the service counter. “And the waitress — she’s new too.”
Of course, the Ketchums did add a few modern amenities. They built an adjoining dining room and kitchen, so the diner can now comfortably seat up to 70 people.
They’ve adorned the walls with some 1950s memorabilia — pictures of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe — plus some of their own. One photo shows the diner being hauled by a semi exiting Interstate 88 back when the Ketchums first purchased it in November 2007.
In the rear dining room, they’ve hung a photo of Bob and Nixie Nye, the couple who originally opened the diner in Champagne, Ill., back in 1956. Between the smiling couple is Col. Harland Sanders, who sold the couple his famous recipe and made their diner the 14th Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in the nation.
The Chuck Wagon’s menu is an eclectic combination of classic recipes and diner favorites. Tom says the couple is still feeling their way through the selections, but swears by the diner’s juicy burgers and hand-cut fries.
They’re also working through the growing pains of hiring a full staff, a chore that has proved to be a bit more difficult than either expected. Still, Tom says his ongoing saga with the diner has been every bit as rewarding as he expected.
“I knew it’d be a lot of work,” he says, flashing a tired smile. “But it’s not bad.”