By Kyle R. Weaver
This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XXXIX, Number 2 - Spring 2013
The iconic metal box neon sign has remained a permanent fixture since the 1930s, and to this day the community recognizes it as an important Middletown landmark. After the sign fell and was damaged during a 2009 storm the local historical society pitched in to have it restored. Photo by Kyle R. Weaver
Charles Selcher was twenty years old when Kuppy's Diner opened on August 5, 1933, at the corner of Brown and Poplar Streets in Middletown, Dauphin County. He was born in 1913 on a farm three miles west of the borough, along what is now state Route 230, and had known co-owner Karl Kupp since the seventh grade. The young men graduated in 1931 from Middletown High School. Selcher went on to college and then became a trainer at Middletown Air Depot at the outbreak of World War II. He has been a patron of Kuppy's since its opening, first stopping in "mostly for coffee and ice cream after a movie." Now one hundred years old, he sits on a stool at the far end of the counter against the wall every Saturday, when the diner serves its special homemade chicken corn soup. It's a ritual he began after his wife died in 1956. Selcher talks about the early years, recalling that Karl was a hard worker, immediately taking a job at a poultry farm after high school. "He'd feed the chickens, clean the houses, gather eggs, and transfer chickens. Long hours."
Karl's father Percy had family background and experience in the restaurant business. His father Amos ran the Railroad House Restaurant in Middletown in the early twentieth century, and Percy worked at Siler's Restaurant, also in the community. Selcher admires the optimism of the forty-five-year-old father Percy and his only son, twenty-one-year-old Karl, opening a diner in the midst of the Great Depression. He wonders if they could ever have imagined the business would still be in operation eighty years later.
The Kupp family is currently in its fourth generation of ownership, with the fifth generation now working at the diner. Karl Kupp Jr. took over in 1975. He passed control to his son Greg and his wife Carol, the current owners, in 1991. Their daughter, Rachel, the fifth generation, has worked there since 2000.
Kuppy's Diner is an extraordinary success, long outlasting many restaurants and small businesses in the area. For years, the menus have carried Percy's philosophy: "If you serve good food at reasonable prices, people will be satisfied." While this might be an essential ingredient of the diner's success, it is clear that other elements, such as the continued dedication by a line of family owners and the devotion of a cross-generational community customer base, have contributed largely to keeping Kuppy's alive and well for eight decades.
Although the word diner has been applied to many different buildings that housed restaurants, experts use the term to indentify structures made in a factory and delivered to the point of operation. The concept developed from mobile lunch wagons which first appeared at factory gates in the cities of industrial New England in the 1870s to feed hungry graveyard shift workers. The industry grew, and larger cars built with counters and stools inside, were set in stationary locations in towns and along highways throughout the Northeast not far from their manufacturers in Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey. There were no diner manufacturers in Pennsylvania, but with the industry thriving on its borders, the state received hundreds of the prefabricated restaurants through the years.
The exterior of Kuppy's in 1938, shortly after the new Ward & Dickinson diner arrived. Courtesy greg and carol Kupp
An early manufacturer, Ward & Dickinson (W&D) of Silver Creek, New York, established in 1924, embarked on an aggressive marketing campaign to sell its patented Ward Dining Cars. A 1925 sales brochure included scenarios of successful owners, including a Mr. Walker who "paid in full for his dining car, owns his own home, and a new automobile." The prospective diner proprietor was assured, "You can do as Mr. Walker has done." Such notions became even more appealing at the dawn of the Great Depression.
The Kupps perhaps came upon similar ad copy and might have realized that if they combined Percy's restaurant experience and Karl's work ethic they would be successful too, and so they purchased a Ward car for $7,800 in 1933. When they opened on August 5 the promising advertising copy proved to be true. Percy and Karl took in $62 for the day at a time when hamburgers sold for ten cents each.
The diner's counter with ten stools and two booths could seat eighteen. With griddle, stove, steam table, refrigerator, bread drawers, and coffee urn all directly behind the counter, the Kupps, uniformed in white with black bow ties and caps, performed short-order cooking and quickly and efficiently assembled platters in front of their customers. Like many diners at the time, Kuppy's was open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Additional staff was hired to work in shifts around the clock.
In such close quarters, intimate relationships among the owners, employees, and customers, many of whom became regulars, developed. As the stools emptied and filled again throughout the day and into the night, patrons discussed news, politics, and local gossip with one another and the employees.
Upon the success of a diner, manufacturers at the time encouraged owners to upgrade with newer and larger models to keep up-to-date and accommodate their growing clientele. It's unknown whether a W & D salesman tempted the Kupps to upgrade, but in 1938 they purchased a deluxe model to replace the older car. The new model, serial number 310, looked similar to the previous one, only a bit larger. With its eleven counter stools and six booths, the 12 by 35 foot diner could seat thirty-five people at one time.
Founder and first generation owner Percy Kupp in the 1930s. Courtesy Greg and Carol Kupp
The exterior of the new Kuppy's was clad with large porcelain enamel metal panels. This was before diners had taken the classic modern form with stainless steel siding and horizontal colored bands, which reached its zenith in the mid-twentieth century and has become iconic in popular culture. Like all Ward cars the new diner was topped with a monitor roof, a central raised section that spanned the length of the building with small clerestory windows on either side for interior ventilation and natural lighting. A small kitchen projected from the rear on the left side. Windows around the diner had clear glass on the lower sash and green-and-white marbleized stained glass panels on the upper portion which was a special feature of W & D diners. Interior curved porcelain enamel panels made up the ceiling, ceramic tiles covered the walls, and wood was used for the trim and cabinetry.
The 1933 diner was wheeled off to nearby Elizabethtown, Lancaster County, where it opened in 1939 as the second Kuppy's Diner. The operation was brief because within the year Percy suffered a stroke, and Karl sold the diner to Red Baker, who opened it as Baker's Diner.
The diner business was one of the few that boomed during the Great Depression. Middletown residents filled Kuppy's because good inexpensive meals could be had within walking distance from their homes. "We didn't have the transportation," Charles Selcher recalls. "We weren't free to move around." Many patrons had attended Middletown High, so they knew the Kupps and were friends with other customers.
Families ate in the booths, many with children who grew up to be regulars too. Audra Henderson, born in 1932, began eating at Kuppy's as a child with her parents Stanley and Ella Pehowic and four siblings, but she has no idea for sure when that would have been. "I just always have come to Kuppy's," she recalls. "My parents didn't go out a lot, but if they went out it would have been Kuppy's." The earliest food she remembers was baked beans, which she loves and says remain the same today. Audra later married Herbert "Doc" Henderson who began patronizing the diner at the age of eighteen in 1946. Doc became a dentist and with Audra raised a family who then ate regularly at Kuppy's. Their children are now adults and they eat there with their children.
Another lifelong patron who first arrived at the diner as a child was the late Stanley Singer, also born in 1932. "I always remember him saying he was in a little stroller, that his parents brought him in when the diner came in," Greg Kupp says. Stanley's father Abraham established a gasoline station in Middletown two years before Kuppy's opened. Eventually Stanley worked at the business, which later developed into a television and appliance store, and ate regularly at Kuppy's. He became the diner's most devoted customer, writing letters to the newspaper when Kuppy's was overlooked in polls or to the local PBS television station when Kuppy's was omitted from a diner documentary. An avid cat lover, Stan always joked with Greg that he put him in his will, but later said he decided to give everything to his cats. When Stan died in 2011, it turned out Kuppy's was indeed in his will. Stan made a provision that money from his estate was to pay for a full day of free coffee for Kuppy's patrons. The Kupps, in turn, gave the money for the free coffee to the Helen O. Krause Animal Foundation, a nonprofit, no-kill shelter for dogs and cats located in Dillsburg, York County, in honor of Stan and his affection for cats.
Karl Kupp assumed operations after his father's stroke and took complete control when Percy died in 1950. As post-war America changed, so too did Kuppy's. Fewer nightshift workers were traveling through Middletown late at night so it was no longer practical to operate the diner twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. Kuppy's had already been closed on Sundays since the war and Karl now began closing at midnight. Weekday hours then became 5 a.m. to 7 p.m., closing Saturdays at 2 a.m. During those times Kuppy's was packed, so in 1960 Karl expanded with a small dining room that seated an additional sixteen people bringing total capacity to fifty-one. The exterior was faced with brick in 1963 and later a gable roof was added, completely concealing the original appearance.
The interior of Kuppy's in 1938. Many of the features remain today, including the ceiling, stools, wooden trim and cabinetry, menu boards, and refrigerator. The dishes are Inca Ware, made by Shenango China, which operated in New Castle, Lawrence County, from 1901 to 1991. Courtesy Greg and Carol Kupp
Customers still came from the Olmsted Air Force Base and Doc Henderson remembers a time when Karl put a chain across the entryway to the new section and posted a sign "Officer's Club." Although Olmsted closed in 1969, part of the base began serving as a facility for the Pennsylvania Air National Guard, and to this day uniformed servicemen frequently occupy the diner's booths. In 1966 much of the Olmsted land was developed as the Harrisburg campus of the Pennsylvania State University, drawing both students and professors. The flight area of the base was converted into the Harrisburg International Airport, giving Kuppy's a new stream of one-stop customers. One of the most loyal groups of customers has been the local business owners who line the stools in the morning for breakfast.
Karl displayed an outspoken, surly persona behind the counter. He had a stockade of standard insults for special customers. When a regular arrived he would shout, "Look what the cat dragged in!" Or when one stood up to leave he would bellow, "Goodbye, you SOB, I hope your four tires go flat and your engine blows up." It was all in good fun but his sense of humor did keep some people away. Grandson Greg says, "A lot of people came in for that, but there's people who up to ten years ago still wouldn't come in because of something he said." When Karl announced his retirement in 1974 after forty-one years at the diner, he received his comeuppance. The Middletown Press and Journal ran a full front-page story with the headline, "Loudmouth Retires," lampooning Karl.
Karl's only son, Karl Jr. born in 1936, began doing odd jobs at the diner at a young age. After graduating from high school in 1954 he started full-time as a short-order cook. When Karl Sr. retired he put the diner up for sale, and in 1975, Karl Jr. bought it. Son Greg, born in 1957 had worked at Kuppy's as a teenager too, and after graduation in 1975 went full-time cooking behind the counter.
Karl Jr.'s good friend, Robert "Bob" Reid, had been a regular customer and was serving on Middletown's borough council when he took over. Bob, too, had worked at Kuppy's at an early age. Born in 1932, Bob graduated from college and taught in the Middletown School District from 1959 to 1993. He is currently the mayor of Middletown, the first African American mayor in Pennsylvania, originally elected in 1978 and reelected through 1994 when he became Dauphin County Court administrator. After that stint Middletown residents encouraged him to again run for mayor and he has held the office since 2002.
Bob, also a lifelong patron of Kuppy's, is usually found at the counter in the afternoon six days a week for lunch or coffee. Thanks to his father's close friendship with Karl Sr., Bob began his first job in 1944 at age twelve, cleaning the diner's exterior porcelain enamel panels, a summer job he detested. "Buckets, water, brushes," he recalls, "I guess I must have quit that job fifty times. And each time I'd quit, I'd go home and my dad would be standing on the porch waiting for me." When Bob left for home, Karl Sr. would call Bob's father to let him know "he quit again." As Bob reached the house his father would send him back to Kuppy's.
Bob later worked at the diner as a dishwasher. His cousin Pearl Barber worked at Kuppy's, too, doing the heavy cooking in the back kitchen. She introduced the thick chicken corn soup that has since been a staple on Mondays and Saturdays. Another cook, Anna Mayers, began at Kuppy's in 1944 and remained into the 1980s. She started as an assistant and then became the main cook. Karl Jr. says she never missed a day. Carol Kupp recalls Anna "wasn't married, [and] she'd wear a little white dress, like a nurse's uniform." Anna worked the back of the house, prepping meals and making soups and desserts.
Cover of the 1993 menu. Courtesy karl and shirley Kupp
Some of the early Pennsylvania Dutch recipes came from Percy's wife Margaret, including chicken pot pie and oyster pie. Anna developed other entrees and desserts, and they are still served, although the recipes were passed down orally. When Karl Jr.'s second wife Shirley began filling in for cooks on vacation in the late 1970s, she sat with Anna and wrote down on index cards the basic ingredients for the dishes or whatever information Anna could supply. For years Anna had cooked by rote, adding a bit of this and a bit of that without using measuring utensils, so she was unable to give any exact amounts for the ingredients. "Three puffs of pepper," for instance, was one of the measurements she offered in reference to the type of container that held the pepper which could be squeezed to deliver "puffs." Later in the 1990s Carol Kupp sorted through the cards to develop written recipes for the newer cooks.
Longtime patrons appreciate the care and consistency that goes into making their morning meals. The simple eggs, bacon, and potatoes plate has been one of the diner's bestsellers for years. Regular Horace Harden Jr., known as JR, began frequenting the diner in 1969. For forty years he has been in for breakfast six days a week and says he would eat there seven days if the diner were open on Sundays. He loves the breakfast potatoes. "These start as raw potatoes in cast iron skillets," JR says, "not that precooked stuff."
"We slice them in the morning and fry them that same day," adds Greg Kupp. "Most people boil them and then slice them, then brown them. But when you boil them you pour the water down the drain and there goes all the flavor." Kuppy's has been preparing potatoes this way from the beginning - and in the same skillets.
Coffee has always been served from large urns on the back bar. In the late 1950s Karl Sr. began buying coffee from John Gross & Company, a food service distributor founded in 1950 by the company's namesake and his son John Gross Jr. Kuppy's continues to purchase coffee and other products from Gross. The diner's Gross sales representative since 1997, Bob Brant worked at the diner as a teenager in the 1970s. John Jr., now in his nineties, turned control of the firm over to his son but keeps his hand in the business as a hobby, he says, stopping to visit clients like Kuppy's every three months and deliver the company newsletter he still writes. In a November 1999 issue he reported that in forty years Kuppy's had purchased more than one hundred thousand pounds of coffee from Gross, and estimated the diner had served more than five million cups.
Kuppy's also offers daily specials. The schedule has remained the same for as long as anyone living can remember: Monday, chicken pot pie; Tuesday, chopped sirloin; Wednesday, fish fry; Friday, baked haddock; and Saturday, chicken and waffles. Thursday's specials vary, with the diner's popular roast turkey as the first Thursday special. In the "R" months - September through April - on every other Friday the diner's famous oyster pie is served.
The preparation of oyster pie is labor intensive and expensive. Oysters, potatoes, and eggs are mixed in dough and cooked in large pans to form a crusted pastry. Each serving is spooned onto a full plate and coated with a buttery milk broth. For years people have traveled distances for Oyster Pie Fridays. At the height of its popularity they waited in a line around the diner in the cold winter months for a plateful. Articles have been written about it and in 1998 customer James Francis composed a poem titled "A Slice of Heaven," ending with a note about his yen for the delicacy.
Fourth generation owner Greg Kupp (facing page right) is at the grill six days a week cooking breakfast. Photo by Kyle R. Weaver
The diner's fame, however, goes far beyond its oyster pie. During Karl Jr.'s tenure Kuppy's received nationwide visibility as the setting for media activity after the March 28, 1979, accident at Three Mile Island (TMI). The nuclear power plant on the Susquehanna River, three miles from Middletown, had been bringing a steady stream of lunchtime customers since it opened in 1974. During the emergency Kuppy's took sandwiches to the facility for the workers who were tied up for days during the crisis. As the clock was ticking toward what many people thought would be a complete meltdown, reporters and journalists gathered at the diner to conduct interviews and gauge local opinion. Stories appearing in the New York Times, Washington Post, Associated Press, and several dailies featured Kuppy's in their articles. It was also where Mayor Reid conducted most of his interviews. "People would come to my office looking for me," he recounts, "and everyone would tell them, 'go down to Kuppy's Diner, he's down there having coffee' and that's where they would find me." Journalists continue to interview the Kupps and Reid on anniversaries of the accident. Today, the mayor jokes with Karl Jr. that he's put Kuppy's on the map.
In 1991 Karl Jr. decided to turn the diner over to Greg and Carol. Karl continued cooking breakfast four days a week for several more years before fully retiring in the late 1990s. Carol believes the reason the business has been so successful is that the owners have always had high standards and to maintain them the Kupps have never been absent from day-to-day operations. Greg works six days from 4 a.m. to 1 p.m. and returns two days for dinner from 4 to 7 p.m. Carol waitresses three days, makes desserts, picks up orders, and keeps the books. Daughter Rachel waitresses four days and on Saturdays helps with short orders behind the counter. The Kupps are aware it is more than food that has kept generations of customers coming back. Regular JR Harden describes it best by evoking classic television. "They know me," he says. "They know what I eat and drink. Did you ever watch the TV show Cheers? When Norm walks in they yell, 'Norm!' Well, when I walk in it's 'JR!'"
Kyle R. Weaver, a resident of New Cumberland, Cumberland County, is an editor for Stackpole Books. He has previously written for Pennsylvania Heritage and is the revising author of Diners of Pennsylvania.