THE STORY OF Lumpy’s Diner IN PITTSBURG01 August 2019 Written by By Natalie Cooper
Published in August 2019 Articles
What We Did and How it Happened
Lumpy’s has been my life. For the past nine years I’ve been the owner of Lumpy’s Diner in Pittsburg. “Owner” is too narrow a word to describe what the restaurant is for me. I eat, breathe, and sleep for the restaurant. Customers are family. I do whatever needs to be done — wait on tables and buss them, help in the kitchen, move supplies into and out of the storeroom, sweep and mop floors, and clean counters. I’m the restaurant’s biggest fan. I have very few groceries in my own refrigerator because I take my meals here.
I have dedicated myself to making Lumpy’s Diner a place where people come, know they are welcomed, loved, appreciated, and are fed a tasty snack or meal by a waitress who obviously takes pleasure in serving them. The best part of the business for me is that we’ve created a place where we can connect with families as they pass through the changes in their lives and watch as the kids grow over the years.
Downtown Pittsburg’s revitalization efforts have paid off. A lot of pedestrians walk by our front door, and some of them walk in. Business is booming, but at the beginning opening a new restaurant in this location was a tough challenge. In those days Downtown Pittsburg was more a place-to-avoid than a destination. It had never been a prosperous area and at that time it was in the midst of a major downtown renovation project, so there was even less foot traffic.
The renovation is what had attracted Lumpy to the area. He was a visionary and believed that we were getting in at the beginning of what would soon grow into a vital downtown business area. I was the manager at the time. Lumpy and I were opening the restaurant in an abandoned restaurant space. I was there from day one as we began renovations. We had to do a lot of cleaning, painting, and decorating before we were ready to open the doors for our first diners.
Lumpy always liked to do things with a big splash in his Antioch Restaurant with media events that included car shows, eating contests, and outrageous menu items such as a six-pound Kitchen Sink Omelet made with a dozen eggs folded around five pounds of beef, cheese, and vegetables. If anyone could eat one of them in under an hour, Lumpy would inscribe his name on a wall of fame. Even more outrageous was his Double Dog Dare Ya’ in which a pair of diners had to consume three buns, two 5-pound hamburger patties, 20 slices of cheese, 12 slices of bacon, and all the fixings. He charged $100 for the entrée but not only gave it free to any team that could finish it under an hour, he would give them $100. However, in our Pittsburg restaurant we don’t try to replicate the fun and sometimes madcap things Lumpy had going on at the original diner.
From the beginning, Lumpy made sure that I learned how to operate the grill and stove, understood ordering supplies, handling payroll, and was familiar with the countless other parts of restaurant management. “You have to know how to do every job here,” Lumpy told me. “Employees need to realize that they aren’t irreplaceable, because you would be able to do their job any time you need to.”
We opened July 2011 with no huge Opening Day extravaganza. I began working seven days a week — opening the doors at 6:00 a.m. and closing them at 9:00 p.m. Lumpy was busy with family affairs at the time; helping care for his young child and making plans to get married. He came by sometimes to offer advice and moral support, but I was the one running the place.
It was a tough time and I saw a lot of businesses come and go during those early years. Downtown Pittsburg didn’t begin thriving as quickly as we had hoped and that first year we had a real struggle to keep the place open. I tried to increase business through advertising and promotions without much luck.
After running the restaurant for a year-and-a-half, we were doing better, but Lumpy was disappointed with the slow growth. He had become even more occupied with family affairs and with his other two restaurants, so he asked me if I was interested in taking over the business. I did not see that coming and was completely shocked by the suggestion! At first, I seriously doubted my ability to pull off such a thing, however, Lumpy talked me up. He reminded me that little would change in my transition from manager to owner since I had been doing the business mostly by myself from the beginning. He assured me that he would continue to offer whatever support he could. “Nothing will be changed,” he said. “Except your name will be on the check and the profits will come to you.”
“I’ll think about it.” I said.
“What’s to think about?” Lumpy asked. He could be a convincing man when he was sure about something. “If I didn’t believe in you, I wouldn’t ask you,” he said.
I spoke with my parents and realized that I was still young. In the worst case, there wouldn’t be too much to lose. Also, I realized how much there was to gain. Besides the potential earnings, ownership would ensure that I could remain part of the community I had come to love, doing the work that brought me such satisfaction, and offering excellent customer service to the people whom I loved serving.
Lumpy and I spoke a few more times about what he expected concerning the legal matters we had to take care of, and how we would run the place. He reassured me again that I wouldn’t be alone. “If anything goes wrong, I’ll be there in a heartbeat,” he said. He also reassured me by telling me that he had a selfish reason for offering his support “My name is on the building,” he said. “I have a brand to uphold!”
For a couple decades I had been putting my tips into a savings account, so I was able to pay Lumpy half the asking price upfront and borrowed the other half from my parents. Business really was beginning to pick up and within a year I had paid them back.
It was the right time for me to move into ownership. I rented an apartment a block from the diner, which gave me a one-minute commute. I opened and closed seven days a week. I felt at home; this is where I belonged. I loved making people happy. I had wonderful interactions with my customers and was willing to be a friend to everyone who came through the door. They had become family.
When Lumpy passed from us on June 16, 2015, he took with him something that can never be replaced. His spirit often seems nearby; I think about him all the time. The month following his passing, his grandparents honored his legacy by giving me the opportunity to purchase a home four minutes from the diner.
The city of Pittsburg owned the building the restaurant was in, and last year the city offered the property to me. In October, I became owner of the building.
I have no big plans for the future nor any desire to grow Lumpy’s Diner into something larger than it is. A bigger size would detract from the mom-and-pop atmosphere of the place that I value so much. I would not care to own a restaurant in which I couldn’t become personally acquainted with each of my customers.
Come by and say hello. Have a burger and some fries, and see if you don’t feel like you’ve come to someplace worth coming back to.
HOW LUMPY AND I DID THIS
My connection with Lumpy goes back to 2007 when I was fresh out of high school looking for a job. Lumpy hired me to serve tables in his family’s first restaurant, Digger’s Diner in Concord. I worked for him and his mom Kathy. They both provided me with a premier introduction to the food service industry. My folks had taught me the value of hard work and doing your best, so from the beginning I willingly engaged in Digger’s attitude of excellence including offering good food with the right ingredients, prepared in the right way, and served in a friendly manner with a warm smile.
Lumpy’s and Kathy’s example infected the whole crew with a philosophy that made customer service the highest goal. To the extent possible, we did the very thing that I now do at Lumpy’s Diner — ensure that customers would leave the restaurant with the conviction that they had eaten a tasty meal in a pleasant environment, offered in a nice presentation, by a table server who seemed to enjoy making their dining experience as great as possible.
Lumpy and Kathy understood the principle of any successful mom-and-pop dining establishment — that the goal is to have satisfied diners returning for their next restaurant meal and telling their friends, family members, and acquaintances about the great food and wonderful service they could get at Digger’s Diner.
Lumpy was a wonderful boss and a role model for the ideal vision restaurateurs should have of their profession, their customers, and their employees. I learned from him the value of hard work and pushing myself to get the job done right. Lumpy and Kathy believed that there is no such thing as “good enough.” The goal was excellence in every part of the work.
Almost from my first day waiting tables, I felt that I had found a place where I belonged. I discovered a real passion for waiting on customers and helping them to have the best dining experience possible. I became most happy when I made others happy. I discovered the great pleasure that could be derived from serving people.
I worked with Lumpy until ten years ago when he left to open his own Lumpy’s Diner in Antioch. After six months on the job, I was promoted to the position of lead server at Digger’s.
Nine years ago, I contacted Lumpy concerning a rumor that he was thinking about opening a new restaurant in Pittsburg. He confirmed that it was true and offered me a management position. It was a great move! For one thing, the new job would shorten my commute from hours to minutes. Even better, perhaps, was the opportunity of working with Lumpy again.
We met a couple times to discuss details about how I would manage the business and how the two of us would work together. There seemed to be perfect agreement between the two of us on how to move forward.
People use the expression, “the beginning of the rest of your life,” in a general way. However, the phrase exactly captures that day when I agreed to manage Lumpy’s Diner. Twelve years ago, I told Kathy that I had a dream of someday owning my own diner. I am thankful to Lumpy for the essential role he played in turning the dream into reality.
Photos by Casey Quist