The DeRaffele family has been building and delivering diners for nearly 80 years, and their third-generation business is one of the last of its kind standing, even though not all of its diners are.
The specialized mechanics, designers and welders at DeRaffele Manufacturing Co. Inc. create complete custom standalone diners in the company’s 10,000-square-foot warehouse at 2525 Palmer Ave. in New Rochelle. When completed, the diners are taken apart for delivery in sections and reassembled on the site. The DeRaffeles also do renovations, with work planned for the Andros Diner in Fairfield and Athena Diner in Southport in the next month or two.
The company, owned by brothers Joe, Steven and Phil Jr., is the only diner manufacturer remaining in the region, according to their father, Phil DeRaffele. He said there used to be about 14 other diner manufacturers, most of them in New Jersey.
Since the company started keeping track in the 1970s, it has designed, built and renovated more than 650 diners. In the warehouse office, where the walls are lined with pictures of retro diners and new diners designed to look retro, Phil DeRaffele and son Joe can rattle off names and explain details about the diners their family has built.
The majority of the DeRaffele diners are on the East Coast in New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey. The company does not make what Phil calls “simulated diners” – diners built in storefronts or existing buildings, which he said are more common on the West Coast.
Yet, it’s becoming more difficult to find space to build a standalone diner, which is typically 4,500 square feet, Phil said. Now DeRaffele does more renovations to existing ones.
In the past year, the company built one diner, the New Rochelle Diner, which opened in April on Weyman Avenue and Main Street.
Phil took over the company in the 1950s from his father, Angelo DeRaffele, an Italian immigrant. A carpenter and foreman for a New Rochelle company that built 30-foot lunch wagons, Angelo went on to start his own diner manufacturing company, facing and surviving challenges like the Great Depression and rationing of materials in World War II.
After the war, the industry boomed. “I mean, everybody wanted diners,” Phil said.
Phil said his company’s design of the Peter Pan diner, built in the 1950s in Wilmington, Del., revolutionized the look of today’s diners and helped attract business to the company. The exterior had wings, a bigger canopy and novel window shapes.
Joe said the company builds all styles, depending on what the diner owners want. The owners of the New Rochelle Diner wanted a glitzy exterior to stand out for passing motorists on Interstate 95, with a retro, neon look with mirrored stainless steel on the outside and ’70s colors on the inside, Phil said. The Circle Diner in Fairfield has a colonial design with red brick and white columns.
Joe, who worked in finance and administration at IBM Corp. for eight years, is the controller who handles financing and permits. Brother Steven does steel work, leads the welding crew, and does deliveries and assembly, while Phil Jr. finishes interiors.
It takes about 10 weeks to build a completely furnished diner with kitchen and bathrooms. “Building a diner is like building a perfect cabinet; it’s altogether different than building a house,” Phil said.
The sections, about 12 to 15 feet wide and 40 to 50 feet long, are delivered on flatbed trailers. Diner owners are responsible for laying the foundation on which the building will sit.
The average diner costs about $2 million. The DeRaffele company offers financing to creditworthy owners. It usually takes about 10 years for an owner to pay if off, Phil said.
The DeRaffeles still hear from owners after they finish a project and move on to the next. On a recent afternoon, about a week after the New Rochelle Diner opened, Phil took a phone call from one of the owners. Joe said it’s not unusual to keep in touch with the owners.
“If there’s a problem, we’ll run out,” he said. “We have very hard-working customers. We’re proud of our customers so we try to do the right thing.”
Some owners of diners built or renovated by DeRaffele will call years later for a renovation if they need to boost business or stand out among the competition, Joe said. A renovation could cost $200,000 to $700,000, he said.
Owners often get design inspiration from other DeRaffele diners. Joe said most diner owners are Greek and often refer to each other’s diners when describing what they want.
“Most of them know each other and their diners and what they look like,” Joe said.
In their diners, owners are in the kitchen or out front greeting customers. “The owners are there, they know what’s going on, customers know them,” Joe said. “Overall it’s a good experience. It takes people back a little bit to a good time in their life.”