Tastee Diner in Dispensary Sights Again?

Poster designed for the January 19, 2019 Diner Appreciation Day event organized by The Laurel History Boys

Who’s ready for some diner dispensary deja vu?

From what I’ve been hearing, the Tastee Diner—which has quietly remained for sale since a City of Laurel-supported plan to allow a medical cannabis dispensary to take over its site in 2018 was withdrawn due to overwhelming public support for preserving the historic structure—is once again on the verge of making a deal that would seal the diner’s fate.

Believe it or not, it’s been nearly five years since the iconic chrome building—one of only two original Comac diner cars known to still exist in the world—narrowly avoided the wrecking ball (or a cosmetic makeover that would’ve rendered it unrecognizable—a fate arguably worse than demolition).

In November 2018, the announcement came that a sale of the diner was pending to Pure Hana Synergy, a medical cannabis company that sought the location for their brick and mortar business. The diner property, with grandfathered clauses in its fine print, would have allowed Pure Hana Synergy to move in and quickly set up their dispensary.

The Laurel History Boys and the Laurel Historical Society were vocal in trying to preserve the diner in some form, and repeatedly asked the City of Laurel to work with both the buyer and seller to explore options for relocating the portable structure (which arrived on the site from New Jersey in 1951). When it became apparent that the City had no interest in saving the building, the public began to weigh in; and by the time the Planning Committee met to vote on whether or not to recommend approving the sale, they’d heard the public loud and clear. The committee then took the unusual step of going against the mayor and Department of Economic and Community Development’s wishes and unanimously voted to deny the application.

And at the Board of Appeals meeting in January 2019, Pure Hana Synergy surprised many by withdrawing their application within the first ten minutes of the hearing. “We thank the community for teaching us and telling us honestly what true feelings and priorities are,” their representative said.

I was one of those at the front lines battling to save the diner. Not to deny owner Gene Wilkes the right to sell it, mind you, but to simply prevent it from being unnecessarily destroyed in the process. I was (and am still) convinced that in the right hands, such a unique piece of Americana can be a boon to Laurel—a true destination restaurant, shop, or other relevant business that honors its architectural heritage. Done properly, it would not only draw customers from areas beyond Laurel, but revitalize its surrounding community.

Mr. Wilkes will be quick to tell you that had he not purchased the diner from the Susini family in 1976, it would’ve closed a long time ago. That’s quite possibly true, and I’m grateful that it’s remained such a steady presence in our hometown all these years, while nearly every other longtime business has closed its doors and made way for countless milquetoast retail shops that have done little to elevate Laurel as a shopping or dining destination. But Mr. Wilkes has been a study in irony—a longtime owner of a genuinely rare diner who has fought against allowing it to be designated a historic property, and one who has complained about the location being unsafe and unprofitable despite keeping it open 24 hours a day (a tradition that finally ended with the pandemic). Anyone who visits the Tastee Diners in Bethesda and Silver Spring—also owned by Mr. Wilkes—will see a noticeable difference in the general upkeep. Laurel’s diner is clearly a lower priority, and has been for decades, sadly.

For its part, the City of Laurel has also conveniently drawn the boundary of its Historic District around the Tastee Diner. What we’ve ended up with, unfortunately, is an owner who no longer wants to do business in Laurel, and a city administration that wants nothing to do with preserving the historic structure. That’s a surefire recipe for disappointment for the rest of us—and anyone who can actually see the diner’s potential.

So, getting back to the matter at hand, the proverbial word on the street is that the owners of Green Point Wellness—the dispensary that occupies the new building at 116 Washington Boulevard (where the notorious B&E Tavern once stood) is serious about purchasing the full property owned by Mr. Wilkes, which includes the Tastee Diner, the motel, and the large white house that faces the Second Street entrance. Green Point Wellness (whose Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission license number lists their business name as Pure Hana Synergy doing business as Green Point Wellness, for what that’s worth) seems to have eyes on expanding both the physical building and parking availability. And with the new law legalizing cannabis in Maryland taking effect on July 1st of this year, an already lucrative business will undoubtedly be booming. Suddenly, what had seemed for the past decade to be an unreasonably high (no pun intended) asking price for Mr. Wilkes’ property would likely be a very sound investment for the dispensary.

What does this mean for those of us who dread the thought of the diner once again facing the wrecking ball? I think it has to start with the right people talking to the owners of Green Point Wellness. We know from experience that neither Mr. Wilkes nor the City of Laurel (specifically, its Community Redevelopment Authority and its Department of Economic and Community Development) will have any interest beyond seeing the diner sold. (Despite a provision that Mayor Moe had included for Pure Hana Synergy’s potential purchase that would have given the City the right of first refusal for any future sale). As the potential new owner, however, Green Point Wellness will still be here doing business on the site and will have to live with whatever decision they make about the fate of the diner.

I would urge the Laurel Historical Society, Preservation Maryland, and any other likeminded organizations to already begin talks with Green Point Wellness. Urge them to see the value in keeping this rare diner intact—explore ways and costs involved in transporting it to another site (or even storage) if necessary, until a responsible buyer capable of restoring and reinvigorating it comes along.

Fittingly, the same day that I learned about this potential development, I also learned about a unique little hidden gem in Dundalk. Pete Lewnes shared with me that tucked inside the modest Drug City Pharmacy on North Point Road, is a recreated lunch counter that pays homage to the drugstore’s 1954 roots.

The Fountain has been a hit since opening, and is on my short list for a road trip a.s.a.p. This is a perfect example of someone getting it right—recognizing the opportunity to create something special that honors the heritage of its building and community, and has become a destination restaurant. But this is also just a recreation. Imagine what can be done with the original Tastee Diner in the right hands.

Below are pages from the Laurel Leader‘s coverage of the drama that played out the last time a sale was pending. On the evening that the second cover story was published, January 24, 2019, the buyer withdrew their application. Just as I felt then, I’m not at all opposed to the diner being sold—especially with it being clear that Mr. Wilkes no longer wants to operate it. But I hope that any potential buyer recognizes the value in saving the building, which has the added benefit of being literally portable. Please don’t waste that opportunity.


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