"A lot of people come just for the potatoes," says Roger Burnett, master of all he surveys, which includes the 140 seats and 60 parking spaces of Park-N-Dine on Route 40 in Hancock, Md. On a really busy day, as many as 22 tractor-trailers have been counted stretching along Route 40 with their blinkers on while drivers eat at the Park-N-Dine.
Burnett's diner, expanded from a counter and eight tables to its three dining rooms and 40 employes, uses 350 pounds of potatoes a day. And no frozen french fries or instant potatoes, either. The 350 pounds of potatoes, cubed and silvered and halved and whole, float in plastic garbage cans stacked high in one corner of the kitchen, ready for the mashed and french fries and potato salad and hash browns that have kept people coming to Park-N-Dine for 34 years, as many as 1,000 people a day.
Of course, it is not just potatoes. Park-N-Dine is a time warp, where a family with three fullback-size sons drives from Rockville because they can no longer afford to eat at McDonald's.
The average dinner check is $2 to $2.25, even though the dinner prices hit as high as $4.95 for a 14-ounce New York strip steak. To Burnett's sadness, rising costs have sent sandwiches to $1, but you still can get the weightiest plate of food you are ever likely to see for $2.10.
A hot turkey sandwich threatens to topple, so thick is its turkey -- turkey that was roasted that day in the three ovens that are going all the time. The gravy is made from homemade stock. The french fries weigh in at about a half-pound per order. Or there is a mountain of mashed with its crater gravy-filled. Alongside comes the inevitable stuffing. At each station of the kitchen is a pan of freshly made stuffing, a scoop plopped on every beef, pork or chicken dish before it leaves the kitchen.
"I always tell them in the kitchen to put as much on the plate as they can get on the plate," explains Burnett, whose face wrinkles at the phrase "portion control." "We try to serve more than they can eat." Burnett is proud of the fact that they sell few desserts because people are usually too full to eat them.
All that adds up to, among other things, a couple hundred pounds of stuffing a day, 20 to 25 pounds of coffee a day for the free refills endlessly poured in a 30-cent cup. The dishwashing liquid alone amounts to 10 gallons a week.
And if you think the food at Park-N-Dine sounds hopefully old fashioned, you ought to see the kitchen. You can hear it from the dining room, mostly the swish of water and the clatter of plastic dishes. There is a new dishwasher, but it sits dormant in the basement, for the women in the kitchen (and they are all women) insist on washing the dishes by hand.
Staff lasts a long time at Park-N-Dine; one cook has been there 26 years, another 17 years. They work in flowered aprons, lifting giant pans of Swiss steak to and from the ovens with big silvery oven mitts. Plastic pans of just-ground hamburger and homemade sausage await portioning. A giant KitchenAid mixer whips potatoes, as cornstarch gravy simmers on the stoves. Yellow walls and yellow plaid linoleum would make this look just like a big old farmhouse kitchen if you didn't browse so far as to find the entire back room filled with bread, fluffy white bread in blue plastic wrappers, $400 worth a week.
In Washington, an inexpensive meal is $25 a couple. So how can the Park-N-Dine sell a three-course meal of home-cooked food, enough to flatten your Scarsdale diet book, for as little as $4?
It is a matter of volume, according to Burnett, and of doing themselves whatever they can do. Seven family members are on the staff, including Burnett's three sons, daughter, daughter-in-law and grandson, plus one son's girlfriend. The staff butchers the meat, grinds the hamburger, cuts up the country hams. When the dining rooms were enlarged four years ago and the kitchen expanded two years ago, they hired a foreman but did most of the construction work themselves. "We all know how to use a hammer," Craig Burnett boasts. "My father makes slaves out of all of us," he laughs.
Food costs are said to run 40 percent of the selling price, although in some cases they edge up to 60 percent. Every week Park-N-Dine spends $3,000 on meat, $700 to $800 on produce, $500 on coffee. Food itself runs $5,000 to $6,000 a week. The Burnetts' remaining mortgage on the property is small. Plastic dishes and glasses cost little in breakage, but even the cheap silverware runs $500 a year in replacement. It costs $75 every two weeks to clean the carpets. The electric bill is $1,000 a month.
As for the food itself, look at the restaurant's cost on a beef stew platter that sells for $1.65. The meat costs 69 cents. Potatoes and carrots add five cents. Salad greens are 25 cents. And the bottled dressing, one of the few items not made in the kitchen, costs about 25 cents because the waitress puts the bottle on the table and lets the customer pour it. Already $1.24 -- without onions and ketchup.
Yet the restaurant is profitable, to the tune of 10 to 20 percent on a $400,000 to $500,000 annual gross income. The Burnetts seek the lowest price in purchasing, but within their standards. While beef prices have increased in the past year, pork and potatoes decreased. All the oysters are counts, the large ones. Half-and-half is served with the coffee. Hams are bought locally from the person who cures them. Mennonite farmers provide the scrapple and pork pudding for breakfast. All the beef is choice, which makes steaks the lowest profit items. Beverages bring the highest profits, but nothing like alcoholic beverages would.
The crucial factor in keeping the prices low is the volume. For its first 30 years the restaurant stayed open around the clock, but that was cut back to 16 hours a day (6 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday until 11 p.m.) once the dining room was expanded. Truck drivers make up five percent of the business and 70 percent is from people just driving through. That, of course, makes the Park-N-Dine vulnerable to gas crises, but so far the crunch has only "slowed us up a bit," according to Burnett.
Although several restaurants in Hancock -- Weaver's, Sagle's and the National Restaurant -- have made a tradition of the good $2 dinner, Park-N-Dine has perfected the art of turning out decent homecooked food at rock-bottom prices to streams of diners, efficiently and profitably. It starts with breakfast, easily under $2 unless you are willing to tackle a $2.65 truck-driver special of two eggs, hotcakes and pork pudding. Lunch and dinner form a long menu of sandwiches, steaks, cutlets, fried seafoods and the central feature, a mimeographed list of daily specials from Salisbury steak to pan-fried chicken breasts (two large or three small per order) to pork chops in mushroom sauce. Gravy-drenched hot sandwiches -- turkey, roast beef, meat loaf, ham -- head the menu as the $2.10 specials. And with the platters come a choice of about a dozen vegetables, in summer the likes of corn on the cob, cucumber salad, cabbage or green beans; in winter the choices are more likely to be sauerkraut, Brussels sprouts, cottage cheese, coleslaw and the lima beans that haven't missed being on a menu for 30 years. The vegetable soup is sweet and acidic with tomatoes, packed with beans and corn and carrots. The chili soup is powerfully hot. Everything that might be sweetened -- slaw, macaroni salad, soup -- is likely to be, in the American fashion. With platters come puffy soft rolls, the kind that can soak up plenty of gravy. And after you soak it all up from the aqua plastic plates, it would take a rare capacity to yearn for dessert. When, in the interest of research, dessert -- pie, most likely -- is ordered, the waitresses have been known to serve two pretty fair-sized slices of pie on a plate as an apology for one being cut too small.
But this does not do justice to a place like Park-N-Dine. The steakhouse red-velvet wallpaper and the coppertone napkin holders and the counter, where everyone, yes everyone, is wearing a hat of some sort, that cannot be adequately described. It has to be seen to be believed. Turn back to the photo and see for yourself: pork chop platter, $2.65; chicken breast platter, $2.95; sirloin steak platter, $4.25; hamburger, 75 cents; french fries, 55 cents; pot roast, $2.10; chef's salad, $2.10; ham and fried oysters, $3.95; hot ham platter, $2.95; cold ham plate, $2.85.
That's the Park-N-Dine, at least $25.10 worth.