Monday, February 18, 2013

Davie's Chuckwagon Diner

Rotbart's Business Picks-n-Pans: Nostaligic Pick of the Week -- Davies' Chuck Wagon Diner

     For $4.75, Dwayne Clark and his crew at Davies' Chuck Wagon Diner on West Colfax Avenue in Lakewood will serve you a made-to-order top sirloin steak and eggs, along with hash browns, toast or hot cakes, and a big slice of Colorado nostalgia. Clark and his wife own the landmark diner, whose unmistakable 36-foot tall neon Cowboy cook sign, complete with Stetson, white apron, brown boots and spurs, has ruled the skyline at the corner of West Colfax and Hoyt Street since June 1957, when the original owner opened the stainless steel diner.

     In 1962, when 47-year-old Clark was still only a baby, the diner added the monstrous fiberglass brown palomino that still sits atop its entrance to this day. With the help of his father, who operated the Clark's Coffee Shops that once dotted greater Denver, Dwayne Clark purchased Davies' Chuck Wagon Diner in 1984 when he was only 21 years old. Two years later, Clark, a graduate of Alameda High School, married Tammy Pippinger, one of his waitresses, and the two have co-managed the diner ever since.

     Besides its famous design and signage, what makes Davies' Chuck Wagon Diner particularly noteworthy is its survival in the fast-food, fast-profit generations that have come since its opening 52 years ago. How does a restaurant not only survive more than a half century, but prosper? Indeed, the Clarks opened and operate two other area Davies' Chuck Wagon Diners. The secret of success Dwayne tells me is "good food at a reasonable price."

     It also helps to have the work ethic of a mule. "That's pretty much how you do it," he agrees. And what does "work" consist of for him? "You take care of your customers," he says. Dwayne visits all three of his restaurants daily, getting to work by 4:45 a.m. and often staying on the job into the early evening. In addition to prioritizing customer service, the kind that small business proprietors must offer if they are to succeed, Dwayne has been very savvy in keeping his prices affordable. While sales have slumped at most major fast food chains and especially high-end restaurants, Dwayne says cash register receipts at Davies' Chuck Wagon Diner have consistently "been very, very good."

     Among his loyal customers at Colfax and Hoyt are neighbors who've stopped by the diner regularly since the 1970s, and a few who tell Dwayne they've been coming since the 1960s. Others who've feasted on Davies' Chuck Wagon Diner's atmosphere include former Colorado Senator Ben "Nighthorse" Campell; former Congressman Bob Schaffer, and ex-Governor Roy Romer. The diner has also served as a set for numerous movies, television shows and commercials, alongside actors such as Dennis Quaid, Danny Glover, Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker.

     In addition to the diner's most popular steak and eggs meal, Davies' Chuck Wagon Diner was honored by The Denver Westword for offering the area's best chicken fried steak.

     Between opening day and today, Davies' Chuck Wagon Diner has had only three owners. The first, William Lyman Davies, constructed the restaurant after purchasing the 46-ton pre-fab materials from Mount View Diners, Inc. of Signac, New Jersey and having it shipped to Denver by rail. Davies' diner, #516, was one of the last models offered by Mount View, which began operations in 1939, provided the construction materials and plans for hundreds of diners across the country, and went out business in 1957.

     Davies, born in 1916, had worked as a restaurant supervisor for Walgreen's Drug stores and traveled frequently around the country, according to a Davies family history. After more than two decades at Walgreens, "Lyman Davies", as he was known, decided to strike out on his own, selecting the Lakewood corner because of its strategic location along Colfax Avenue (Highway U.S. 40), which back then was the dominate east-west route through Denver and the mountains to the West.

     Lyman and his family, who actually were living in Peoria when he bought the diner, relocated to Jefferson County just ahead of the restaurant's opening in June 1957. His son, Dennis, who is now 69 and lives in Ft. Collins, told me he recalls being drafted at age 18 to cook the graveyard shift for the diner, which for many years was open 24-hours a day. His mother, Helen, and siblings Judy, Nancy and Brent, also chipped in.

(Lyman passed away in 1998; his wife, Helen, lived in assisted care in Lakewood until her death three years ago.) 

Artwork by Tom Lund
In 1977, Lyman sold the diner to Clayton Lee, who already operated several other area restaurants. Lyman was in poor health at the time and none of his children wanted to assume the business. Lee ran the diner until 1984, making some changes to the menu and the inside fixtures, but essentially leaving the nostalgic atmosphere and value menu unchanged.

     At first Dwayne Clark and his father bought only the historic diner building from Lee, who Dwayne believes eventually relocated to Alabama and died there at age 56. In 1993, Clark also acquired the land on which the diner sits.

      Although Clark has not been able to replicate the unique signage and history of the Hoyt Street diner, in 2007 his family opened a second successful outlet at 2601 West Alameda and in 2008 a third Davies' Chuck Wagon at 12100 West 44th Street in Wheat Ridge. The three restaurants currently employ 38, including Dolores Gallegos, who has the longest non-family tenure having clocked a dozen years as a waitress on Colfax.

     "I see taking on more down the road," Dwayne says. Just like the good old days."

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