When we walked into Franks Diner, a guy behind the counter yelled, "Sit anywhere that's clean!" And so we slid into a booth and looked around at the best-kept-secret-turned-famous diner that appeared in a 2007 episode of the Food Network's "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives" and was written up in The New York Times.
The long and narrow diner is actually a train car designed in New Jersey that was delivered to the Downtown Kenosha location in 1926. Anthony Franks took advantage of a restaurant concept he read about in a magazine and paid $7,500 plus $325 in travel costs to have a dining car-like structure built and delivered by train.
Once the future diner arrived in Kenosha it was taken by six horses to 58th Street. In 1935, Franks added a dining room and a few years later, a larger kitchen, but the look and feel of Franks is still very train-like.
The Franks family operated the diner until 2001, when it was taken over by Kris Derwae, Lynn Groleau and Chris Schwartz. Just over a year ago, husband and wife team Kevin Ervin and Julie Rittmiller became the new owners. Derwae and Groleau still work at the diner.
After living in Chicago, Boston and Milwaukee's East Side, Ervin and Rittmiller moved to Kenosha for work purposes (Erwin was working in Chicago and Rittmiller has a job based in Milwaukee) and they became regular customers at the quirky diner. The couple wanted to find a way to work together, so when they found out the diner was for sale, they decided it was a good fit for them.
"For the first six months that we owned the place, people kept asking us, 'You're not gonna change anything, right?' and we didn't change anything. Not one price, not one recipe. We didn't even change the napkins," says Ervin.
Almost all of the food at Franks is made from scratch. The diner, open for breakfast and lunch seven days a week, has a menu that features "the usuals" (it actually says this on the menu) like eggs, sausage or bacon and potatoes. Pancakes, omelets, french toast, burgers, sandwiches (including a Spam sandwich), chili and soup make up the bulk of the menu, and there are veggie items, too, including a garden burger and a grilled cheese.
"Garbage Plates" are the most popular items; these breakfast scrambles are made from hash browns, onions, green peppers, jalapenos, eggs and the customer's choice of meat and veggies.
Franks features daily specials. On the day we visited, sloppy joes with Tater Tots and egg nog french toast were available.
Franks' prices are on the low-end of average, with omelets, for example, priced between $5.25 and $7.25 and burgers and sandwiches ranging from $3.95 to $6.95.
Classic alcoholic brunch beverages like Bloody Marys and mimosas are available. It's rumored that the diner served as a speakeasy during Prohibition and that after the ban on liquor consumption was repealed, Franks served "special orange juice" without a license.
"Be nice or leave" is their motto, which speaks directly to frustrated customers who don't want to wait for a table. Franks is small, it seats only 55 people, and often there is a line out the door. Apparently hungry people sometimes get grumpy.
"We work extremely hard to serve as many people as quickly as possible. However, we cannot make your food cook more quickly or make the people waiting before you go away. If we are crowded and you are short on time, we suggest you join us on another day. Thank you for your patience," reads the menu.
The staff is friendly, outgoing and quippy. Ervin says he does not train the staff to have any particular schtick while serving, but that the job naturally attracts a certain type of person.
"We have a lot of characters here," he says.
Despite the demand, Ervin says he most likely won't expand the diner. Because the building is a historical landmark, there are certain aspects of the structure that would have to be updated if they expanded and it could get very expensive. He says they've considered being open on Friday and / or Saturday nights, but lack of food storage is an issue.
"We make just about everything and whole foods take up more space than packaged foods," he says.
Scott Mink has been a customer at Franks for 25 years. He worked as a bartender in 1986, and his boss brought him to Franks for breakfast after partying all night. "Now I come here with my wife and kids," says Mink.
Franks has served famous diners over the years, including the Three Stooges. (Apparently former owner Don Franks told them he didn't think they were funny and so they gave him a ticket to their show on the way out). Other notable Franks' diners were Duke Ellington, Liberace, Peter Tork (band member of The Monkees) and Lawrence Welk.
In the '30s, Bela Lugosi was performing at a now-defunct vaudeville theater that was down the street from Franks. Dressed in his full Dracula costume, he walked into the diner and said loudly in his famous Transylvania-accented voice, "Goooood evening."
"Apparently, the whole place went silent," says Ervin.
So what's the secret to Franks' decades of success?
"The food is good. It's affordable. And this is a unique place with a lot of history and tradition. This is why the bank gave us the money. Franks is more than a place to eat. It's an experience," says Ervin.
Franks is open weekdays from 6 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.; Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and Sundays from 7 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Cash only (there's an ATM in the basement). Franks is closed on major holidays and for the entire week of Labor Day to clean and make minor repairs.
Molly Snyder grew up on Milwaukee's East Side and today, she lives in the Walker's Point neighborhood with her partner and two sons.
As a full time senior writer, editorial manager and self-described experience junkie, Molly has written thousands of articles about Milwaukee (and a few about New Orleans, Detroit, Indianapolis, Boston and various vacation spots in Wisconsin) that range in subject from where to get the best cup of coffee to an in-depth profile on the survivors of the iconic Norman apartment building that burned down in the '90s.
She also once got a colonic just to report on it, but that's enough on that.
Always told she had a "radio voice," Molly found herself as a regular contributor on FM102, 97WMYX and 1130WISN with her childhood radio favorite, Gene Mueller.
Molly's poetry, essays and articles appeared in many publications including USA Today, The Writer, The Sun Magazine and more. She has a collection of poetry, "Topless," and is slowly writing a memoir.
In 2009, Molly won a Milwaukee Press Club Award. She served as the Narrator / writer-in-residence at the Pfister Hotel from 2013-2014. She is also a story slam-winning storyteller who has performed with The Moth, Ex Fabula and Risk!
When she's not writing, interviewing or mom-ing, Molly teaches tarot card classes, gardens, sits in bars drinking Miller products and dreams of being in a punk band again.