DINER DETERMINATION Entrepreneur ready to open 4th Silver Diner

The booth where Bob Giaimo sat patiently for too long can no longer contain him.

He's up on his feet, pacing, gesturing, preaching the word:


Diners. Bright shining diners.

Where working people can get an honest meal at a fair price. Where families can take the kids and not eat plastic food. Where people of all races and backgrounds come together. A diner on every corner. America needs diners. The world needs diners.


"I'd love to see a diner on the Champs-Elysees."


Paris will have to wait, but Baltimore is about to get a good look at Bob Giaimo's back-to-the-future vision of family dining. The hypercharged 40-year-old entrepreneur will open his new Silver Diner at Towson Town Center on Sept. 8.

He can't wait. He wants to see lines. He wants to make a difference, an impact. He wants to see his people, harried but happy, serving the masses.

"I love to see people smile."

Don't get Mr. Giaimo started. Even as he sits amid the glimmering stainless steel and Formica of what will be the fourth restaurant in his chain, he's playing out his vision of a national chain of hundreds of diners.

Not gimmicky joints where bruised and bitter waitresses roller-skate from tables delivering plates of gloppy gravy over leather turkey. Not campy diner-theme restaurants with wine lists, but real diners with 1990s food and great service.

And he wants it to be your vision, too.


Rene Daniel can testify to that. He's the leasing consultant for Towson Town Center who bought into Mr. Giaimo's vision and helped him through the "lengthy, difficult" process that finally convinced skeptical executives at the Hahn Co. to let a diner locate in their glitzy renovated mall.

"He's a very strong, very determined young guy," said Mr. Daniel. "He's one of the most driven people I've ever met."

Determined. Driven. Persistent. Those are the words you keep hearing about Mr. Giaimo, from himself as well as others. In a 33 rpm world, he's spinning on 78.

It goes back a long way. When he was attending Georgetown University in the early 1970s, he saw the need for a cheap, hip place where college students could grab a meal or a snack late at night. And he knew he couldn't wait -- not for graduation, not to turn 21. He had to do it now, before someone else did.

So, at age 19, he did. He and a partner brought a Blimpies franchise to Wisconsin and M streets that became, almost overnight, a Georgetown landmark. He says he did it basically by fTC refusing to take no for an answer -- not from the franchise company, not from the landlord, not from his parents.

Sometimes, he admits, people finally say yes to him just to make him shut up.


"He doesn't listen to the word 'no,' " says Robert P. Pincus, president of Franklin National Bank and Mr. Giaimo's lender for ,, the past 15 years.

After several years of running Blimpies, he recalls, he became convinced that the concept -- trendy, youth-oriented fast food -- was no longer "on the leading edge of where food was going." He says he and his partners closed down the popular restaurant and, after a whirlwind three-week renovation, reopened it as the American Cafe -- the first of a chain that would grow to seven locations and $20 million in annual sales in the next 10 years.

In 1986, he sold a majority interest in the operation to W. R. Grace & Co., but within nine months he became disenchanted and decided to retire at age 35 to a tropical island.

"I went to the island for about a week, maybe two weeks, but

after a while you really get itchy for action," he says.

Where the idea for a chain of diners came from is hard to pin down. In part, Mr. Giaimo says, it's a result of his persistent questioning of ordinary folks on Main Street, U.S.A. In part the inspiration came from a book, "American Diner," by Richard J. S. Gutman. Barry Levinson's movie "Diner" may have given him a little push.


And then there were his memories of the Thruway Diner in Westchester, N.Y., where he used to hang out after high school dances.

"It was a very comfortable place where people of all kinds of lifestyles converged," he remembers.

The decision made, he and his partner, executive chef Ype Hengst, enlisted Mr. Gutman as a consultant and embarked on an obsessive, yearlong research campaign. Mr. Giaimo says he visited some 500 diners all over the country, including such Baltimore classics as the Bel-Loc and Double-T. "It shows," he says, patting his slightly bulging middle.

Finally, he and designer Charles Morris Mount sat down to create the ultimate diner. What emerged is an idealized diner for the 1990s -- faithful to the spirit of the eateries of the 1940s and 1950s but with an almost surrealistic sheen of super-polished stainless steel under a glowing neon sign.

Inside, the decor is an uncanny veneer of the 1950s concealing technology of the 1990s. There are boomerang ceilings made by Formica, and neon light trim. The jukeboxes in the booths are 1956 Seeberg originals, restored to their original gleam and crammed with music from the 1950s and pre-Beatles '60s.

Mr. Giaimo, who lives in McLean, Va., opened the first Silver Diner in Rockville in 1989, winning enthusiastic reviews from Washington-area critics. He followed with one in Laurel in 1990 and one in Potomac Mills, Va., last year.


Getting a diner into Towson Town Center proved to be more work than setting up at the company's previous, freestanding locations. Mr. Giaimo said that when he made a bid for the coveted ground-floor location next to Nordstrom, skeptical Hahn executives turned him down flat. "By February of 1991, I was told no in every way no could be told," he recalls.

Finally, he called the newly appointed director of real estate for the Hahn Co., Al Corti, to make his pitch, telling him the restaurant would do $4 million a year in sales and attract people to the mall. After a marathon three-day negotiating session, Mr. Corti said yes, Mr. Giaimo says.

"He is persistent, he is aggressive and he is very opinionated," says Mr. Corti. "I think those are great qualities."

Once the agreement was made, Mr. Giaimo had a new surprise to spring on Hahn: He wanted to push his facade outside the walls of the mall, giving the Silver Diner a prominent front directly on the parking lot. That required another year of negotiation, Mr. Giaimo says, but he finally got his way.

The Silver Diner's menu is a combination of traditional cardiac cuisine -- decadent home-baked desserts such as the "triple-layer carrot cake with pineapple, chopped walnuts, raisins and cream cheese frosting" and a broad selection of low-fat, low-cholesterol dishes to satisfy 1990s health concerns.

Only one item, steak, costs more than $10. Mr. Giaimo says the average check runs about $5 to $8 a person. He calls it "new family cuisine" and he's convinced it's going to be big, real big.


"This is going to be the hottest restaurant in town -- no doubt about it," he exults.

Making it all work in the fast-paced, low-margin diner business requires a highly dedicated staff, Mr. Giaimo says, adding that he goes to extraordinary lengths to keep his people happy.

"It's the whole deal," he says. "Everything else is tiddlywinks."

Mr. Giaimo isn't planning an explosive expansion. He has his eye on Gaithersburg and Annapolis and hopes to get up to 10 diners by 1995. But after that, he sees no limits.

"We'd like to make this a public and a national and ultimately an international company," he says. "We'd like to have an impact on the world."