On warm summer mornings, the line stretches halfway to the corner. On the freezing-cold November Sunday that I visited, it was standing-room only inside. Waiters skittered past packed tables with trays of eggs and pancakes. A crowd of customers chatted by the door. Others hovered behind every seat at the counter, but no one complained about the wait. People drive hundreds of miles to eat at Franks Diner in Kenosha, Wis.
“We come here every year when we drive up from southern Illinois,” the woman at the next table told me. “The whole family comes. We wouldn’t miss it!”
The couple who owns and runs the diner—Julie Rittmiller, ’84 BUS, and Kevin Ervin, ’82 UIC—could barely crack an egg when they bought Franks Diner in 2010. The closest that Ervin had come to a restaurant griddle was when he worked one high school summer at Wendy’s. He graduated from UIC with a degree in graphic design and went on to a career in marketing and sales. Rittmiller waitressed three days a week while attending Illinois to major in marketing. She had a job in Milwaukee and Ervin was working in Chicago when they met at a friend’s wedding in 2000. They fell in love, deciding to split the difference and moved to Kenosha in 2003.
“Shortly after,” Ervin says, “we kind of discovered this place. We started coming on an occasional Saturday, then every Saturday, then Saturday and an occasional Sunday, then every Saturday and Sunday.”
It’s not hard to see why Franks Diner could become addictive.
“The atmosphere is crazy and chaotic and fun,” Ervin says. “There are sassy waiters and waitresses. We hand out tequila shots on Sunday mornings at 11. Ninety percent of the food is made fresh. The portions are huge; it’s a great value for your dollar. A lot of people come for our Garbage Plate—that’s what we’re known for.”
Perhaps only Ervin can do his signature dish justice.
“It’s a base of hash browns, green peppers and onions, then you can add up to five meats and five cheeses. We’ll throw jalapeños in there. It comes with an order of our homemade toast. Oh yeah, three to five eggs. And three or four pancakes, which are the size of a plate.”
Anyone who can finish a full Garbage Plate in less than 45 minutes, no breaks, gets half off their tab. Many have accepted the Carthage College Red Men Challenge (so-named after local athletes who enjoy taunting each other), but fewer get listed on the winner’s plaque. “You also get your name in the paper,” Ervin says. “We ham it up for you.”
I stared down the Garbage Plate and took at least three-quarters of it home. I will add a personal note: It was delicious. The eggs were impressively soft and tasty (unlike some diner fare), and the home-baked bread with its “secret” ingredient of yogurt made terrific toast. I am anything but alone in my enthusiasm. A dozen online “best” lists have cited Franks Diner. Among them are “21 Best Diners in the Country” (Thrillist); “Best Road Trip Spots” (Chicago’s Best); and “10 Classic Diners and Dives” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s “Wisconsin Trails”).
Beyond its food, Franks has the added distinction of having had only five owner-operators. It was opened in 1926 by Anthony Franks, who sold it to his daughter, who sold it to her brother, who sold it to two women who pitched a sale to Ervin and Rittmiller, who had started hanging out and pouring coffee and running to the store for eggs. “It was so far out of our experience, we said no,” Ervin says. “But then circumstances changed. They pushed really hard because they wanted to move to New Orleans. We did due diligence, and they liked our attitude and personality, so we ended up buying.”
The last of its vintage
Out of respect for its tightly held past, Ervin and Rittmiller view themselves as stewards of Franks and have kept innovations to a minimum, reassuring nervous customers with a T-shirt that reads, “We’re not changing anything.” They have expanded modestly. In warm weather, diners can sit outside on a terrace and enjoy the breeze off of Lake Michigan. The kitchen has a new stove and freezer. The crazy hodge-podge of clippings, photos and cartoons that decorate the diner walls leaves little room for new chuckles, though there is a new plaster cast of Elvis on a shelf in back. With its cozy, long, narrow space, Franks still looks a lot like a railroad car.
In fact, like many similar diners built in the 1920s, Franks was never intended to be anything but a diner. It was built by the Jerry O’Mahoney Company in New Jersey, shipped by train on a flatcar and then pulled on jerry-built wheels to its present location. (The original axle is still in the basement.) As far as anyone can tell, Franks is the only diner of that vintage still in operation.
Over the years, it has hosted Hollywood legends as varied as the Three Stooges, Lawrence Welk, Bela Lugosi and Liberace. More recently, Chicago TV journalists and New York City media mavens have dropped by to sample the Garbage Plate and the cheeky ambience, as have many hungry Green Bay Packers. Franks Diner has been featured in both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and on half a dozen radio shows. And it naturally found its way to the Food Network’s popular “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” with Guy Fieri.
In the decade that they’ve owned the place, Ervin and Rittmiller have worked up a comfy division of labor. Rittmiller, the up-front greeter, does the books, handles finance and has picked up the occasional kitchen skill. “I can crack an egg with one hand,” she boasts. “I can do the grill, but I’m very slow. The customers don’t like that.”
Ervin, the more loquacious of the two, has less obvious chores. “What do I do here?” he asks. “That’s a good question.”
Before I arrived this morning, Ervin tells me, he was back in the kitchen prepping and making bread and cutting onions. He handles managerial tasks. Much of his job consists of lively banter with customers and staff.
Ervin and Rittmiller’s 14-year-old son also works at Franks.“That’s him there,” Ervin says, pointing back to the kitchen, “looking bewildered, as always. He cooks on Sundays. He used to work more, but sports got in the way.”
Diner work isn’t for everyone. It’s a high-pressure job, says Ervin, and it takes a certain kind of person. Several professional chefs who came to work at the diner since the couple took over couldn’t take the pressure and left to cook at the local Mariano’s or Festival Foods grocery stores. “We tend to groom people from within,” Ervin says.
He also keeps his hand on the menu, often creating weekend specials and keeping abreast of food trends. “When kale was hot,” he says, “we put that on the menu.
“But if people think they’re eating healthy, they’ve come to the wrong place.”