At the lunch counter of Laurel’s Tastee Diner, waitresses and cooks recognize the regulars taking a seat on the blue stools next to the gold-speckled countertop.
“George! Where you been?” waitress and cashier Donna Rock asked as she cleaned a booth. “Dead? Jail?”
Rock hadn’t seen the elderly, white-haired man — one of her most loyal customers — in a month. He quietly sipped coffee from a 1950s-style mug, then responded.
“Jail” he said, eliciting chuckles.
It’s that connection of humor and compassion, developed over four decades between customers and staff, that residents fear will be lost in a plan that would turn the diner into a medical marijuana dispensary. The diner’s longtime owner is selling the site to a Bethesda area company that will put pot on the menu.
Preservationists want to stop the deal, saying the establishment’s stainless steel design is one of a handful of existing exteriors made by Comac, a manufacturer in the 1950s known for making dinerswith stainless steel or aluminum exteriors. Regular customers, meanwhile, are sad to see it go.
“It’s a dependable habit,” said 72-year-old Bruce Juba, a retired U.S. Treasury employee, as he sat in a booth eating beef stew.
He and his wife have been coming to the diner a few times a week for 40 years. They remember when some of the waitresses were new mothers decades ago. Now they have grandchildren.
“You don’t find a place like that anymore that’s got continuity, especially in an area that’s so transient,” Juba said.
City leaders are expected to decide Tuesday whether to allow the marijuana dispensary company, Pure Hana Synergy, to operate at the site. Francesca DeMauro-Palminteri, the company’s founder and vice president of marketing, said the deal is contingent upon the city’s approval.
She looked at more than 200 sites in Maryland after getting a license to open a cannabis dispensary, and the Laurel diner’s location met the state’s criteria, she said.
If approved, construction is likely to start early next year, with an opening in June. It would become one of about 70 medical marijuana dispensaries in the state. Those dispensaries recorded about $96 million in sales from December 2017 through November this year, according to state officials.
The possible closure of the diner, which is open 24 hours every day of the week, has left employees nervous and customers nostalgic.
There used to be a lumber yard nearby where a MARC commuter train parking lot now sits. There were men’s and women’s clothing stores and a furniture store along Main Street, which officials are trying to revitalize.
Through it all, the diner has remained.
Customers said they enjoy seeing the same staff each visit, as well as the diner’s memorabilia. A plaque near the kitchen reads, “Don’t criticize the coffee, you may be old and weak someday.” A bumper sticker on a wall says, “Smokers are voters too!”
The diner’s owner, Gene Wilkes, has operated the Laurel spot since the 1970s. He also owns two other Tastee Diners — one in Silver Spring and another in Bethesda. Wilkes didn’t return multiple requests seeking comment.
Longtime customers and employees argue the Laurel location has greater historical significance than the others.
The current rendition of the Tastee Diner is the third at the Laurel site. It was originally known as the Laurel Diner in the 1930s. And in the 1950s, the building was replaced by a structure that was designed to look like an old trolley car and made by the New Jersey-based Comac Diner Co. Wilkes took over the diner in the mid-1970s, locals said, and renamed it the Tastee Diner.
Preservationists said they’re worried the diner’s unique features — both inside and outside — will be damaged or destroyed with the debut of a marijuana dispensary at the site.
“We’re a historic town and the diner is part of that,” said Karen Lubieniecki, chairwoman of the Laurel Historical Society. “Plus, diners are cool. They build new ones and make them look like old-style diners and here we have one that looks old but they want to destroy it.”
Richard Friend, who grew up in Laurel and runs a blog on the city’s history, started an online petition to save the diner that has more than 2,200 signatures. Preservationists said they’re not against the owner selling to the dispensary company, but would prefer the building be moved to a vacant spot along Main Street and either preserved or run by another restaurateur.
Laurel Mayor Craig A. Moe said he’s not interested. He said the vacant site where preservationists want to put the diner is likely to become a parking lot.
Moe said the city came to an agreement with Pure Hana executives that ensures the building’s exterior and memorabilia will be donated to the local historical society.
Still, there’s a sense of loss over the diner’s likely closing.
Friend, a 46-year-old graphic artist who now lives about 40 miles away in Centreville, Va., drives to the diner on weekends for scrambled eggs, toast and coffee that costs about $7. He remembers going to the Tastee Diner a kid with his parents.
When his father became ill with cancer last year and needed treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, his mother didn’t like driving so they met at the diner. The staff kept an eye on his truck while they drove another to the hospital.
After his father died, Friend said, he received a sympathy card signed by diner employees.
“That’s just something that doesn’t happen anymore,” he said. “It’s a special place. People care. It’s a lost art of doing business.”
Most of the diner’s roughly 30 staffers, some of whom live at a nearby motel, have worked there for years. Joy Farmer, 70, is the oldest of three generations of her family working there.
She started at the Tastee Diner at age 25, eventually serving as a waitress, manager, cashier and short-order cook, but took a break at one point to care for her family. Then she came back.
Why? The customers.
“I love the people,” said Farmer, whose daughter and granddaughter also work there. “You know everybody here. That’s the way this place is.”
Rock, the waitress and cashier, said workers are anxious but not angry at Wilkes for selling after decades of running three restaurants.
“The building’s a piece of aluminum,” Rock said. “Most of us are wondering where we’re going to go.”
Jeff Dudley, 62, who works as a shift manager, said he remembers coming to Tastee Diner on special occasions with his family. After 20 years working elsewhere, he came back to work.
“This place is full of old stories, but nobody wants to hear them anymore,” he said. As his eyes welled with tears, he added, “This is home.”