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A cup of Joe with a side of FDL history: 'The Diner' hopes to maintain more than a century of tradition

"The Diner" is under new ownership
Posted at 6:23 AM, Nov 17, 2023
  • "The Diner" was first started as a restaurant in 1915. It's changed hands several times since then, but maintained the same old fashioned feel.
  • A new owner recently took over, and she said she's feeling the pressure to keep up long-standing traditions.
  • The Diner also invites community participation by hosting students from a nearby school to volunteer and learn life skills.
  • Video shows "The Diner's" owner talking about how she's keeping up with history.

FOND DU LAC (NBC 26) — Fond du Lac has changed a lot in the past 108 years, but a “hole in the wall” diner on Main Street hasn’t.
“The Diner” doesn’t have a T.V. or WiFi. Instead, it embraces a 1950s atmosphere.

“There's always conversation, there's always people talking, laughing, telling stories,” owner Sandy Ritchie said.

Ritchie took over the diner this summer, and was met with the task of maintaining more than a century of tradition.

“That part is scary because I have to keep up with all the previous owners. . . I have to keep up with what they did,” Ritchie said. “I've never cooked on a grill before. And everybody can see everything I do. So from day one, I can't hide anything.”

Ritchie said she shadowed the previous owners for months, and used YouTube videos to learn how to cook on a grill. That’s to maintain the tradition of the owner being the primary cook in the diner. But despite challenges, she said the community has been supportive.

“I've come to realize who these people are,” Ritchie said. “And if they're not here, I start to worry about them. You know, why didn't Why didn't Darryl show up today? What's he doing?”

She said hiring initially presented some challenges especially finding people to work at 5 a.m. And while the early alarm clock takes some getting used to, she said carrying on the tradition makes it worth it.

“I have customers that come in here, that their grandfather owned this building, or they were a waitress in the 60s or 70s. I've had dishwashers stop in here. People just want to see that this is still here and that it's still an original diner,” Ritchie said.

Ritchie also uses the diner to give back to the community. For example, every other week students from the North Fond du Lac School District come to volunteer at the diner in a program meant to teach them life skills including cleaning or interacting socially.

Gregory Danfield is one of those students, and he said he enjoys the opportunity to work and learn in his neighborhood.

“Just, everybody's happy,” Danfield said. “They enjoy the food. They enjoy other people's company.”

Ritchie said she hopes to pass on the tradition to the diner, hoping one of her young grandchildren might take it over for her and carry on the legacy for another 108 years.

"It's not a restaurant," she said. "It's an experience."