Homewood, Alabama. When you walk into Salem’s Diner, it’s the people you notice first.
It’s not the ‘50s music on the radio. It’s not the framed black-and-white photographs of World-War-II-era college football heroes, frozen in time, mid-tackle, plastered on the walls.
It’s not the tiny faux-wood booths, or the stacks of complimentary newspapers for customers who prefer print instead of iPhones.
It’s not the beautiful smell of pork and sausage. The scent of coffee and hickory smoked pork products.
It is the booth in the back. The one chock-full of white-haired men who are engaged in solving America’s biggest problems over bottomless cups of Joe.
It is the waitress who calls you “baby,” and does this non-ironically.
It is the cook who can crack 12 eggs, stir the grits, and fry the belly of an entire sow using only one hand.
You walk into Salem’s Diner, and you’re taken backward on the timeline because these people are the characters of your childhood.
You grab a seat. The waitress approaches you with a coffee urn. She is no spring chick. Her name is Joyce. She is a little long in the tooth to be a waitress.
Joyce tells you she has been working for the Salem family since she was 14 years old. Currently, she is a great-grandmother.
“Got a job working here when I was a little girl,” she says. “The Salems treated me good from Day One. I just never found a reason to leave.”
Our cook today is Spencer. Spencer is prepping his flat top for today’s lunch rush. There is always a lunch rush at Salem’s.
That’s because this little out-of-the-way diner was recently voted to have the best Philly cheesesteaks in the United States. Not long ago, a famous TV personality told an audience on network television that Salem’s Diner had better Philly cheesesteaks than Philly. This place became world famous overnight.
Spencer is partly responsible for this.
Spencer is an older man. Tall. Silver temples. Ball cap. He works in saturated fat the way some men work in marble or clay.
“Been cooking here for 50 years,” says Spencer, while scraping his grill. “These are good folks to work for, real good folks.”
They must be. Because it’s unheard for a restaurant to have workplace longevity like this. We live in unique times. Employment turnover is higher than it’s ever been. Good help is hard to find.
Today, the ordinary working American will keep his or her job for an average of three to four years. Max. When it comes to food service jobs, statistics are even worse. The average employment tenure for a food service worker is one year. In some places, food service employees quit after the first 30 minutes.
Meantime, Spencer’s Diner has kept their employees for half a century. And Joyce isn’t anywhere close to throwing in the towel.
“I like working here,” says Joyce. “I still ain’t found a reason to quit.”
A nearby oldster chimes in agreement. “Everyone I know who retires, I usually see them a few weeks later, up at the funeral home.”
“That’s right,” says another old man. “You don’t quit because you get old. You get old because you quit.”
In the booth next to mine is an old guy, sitting sideways so he can face me. His name is J.J. He’s every old man you’ve ever known. White buzzcut. Soft voice. He sips coffee slowly, watching customers come and go.
He’s been coming to Salem’s for 60 years.
“You rarely see the faces change in here,” he says. “Makes it just like home, except your wife don’t cuss at you.”
Today, Salem’s is operated by Wayne Salem. His father, Ed Salem, started this place in the 1950s. Ed was a University of Alabama football star. Quarterback. A hall-of-famer. He opened his first restaurant on 26th Street North. He operated the place with his mother, Zakie. It became an Alabamian institution.
Wayne is 70 years old, but he still runs the place the old way. Just like his father would have. I ask Wayne what this means. What is the “old way?”
“Look. You get good people around you, and then you stay loyal to them for the rest of your life. That’s just how you do.”
You heard the man.
That’s just how you do.
Felicia - May 9, 2023 10:24 am
Best place on this fiery rock.
W. Larry Evans - May 9, 2023 11:14 am
Very few Salem’s Diners left now. Today’s world could use more of them to remind us of things more important than constantly being in a hurry.
stephenpe - May 9, 2023 11:40 am
In my mind Homewood was this small one redlight town with a water tower and HS called the bearcats. “”Homewood is an affluent commuter suburb with cafes, casual restaurants, and independent boutiques clustered around the quaint Soho Square and Edgewood business districts. It’s also home to Red Mountain Park, with a network of hiking and mountain biking trails, plus a zip-line course and a rock climbing tower. Samford University is known for its manicured campus lined with Georgian colonial buildings.””
THe diner sounds like a wonderful place. Where your wife aint cussin you. LMAO…….
thanks again, Sean
Cathy Moss - May 9, 2023 1:59 pm
My husband has breakfast there every Sat. He always comes home with a good story. I have been once and it was good but I don’t have an appetite that early in the day. I love to hear his stories. A good crowd and Wayne must be great to work for. Keep up the good work❤️
Karen Snyder - May 9, 2023 2:00 pm
Loyalty! That seems almost unheard of these days, though I suspect we brought it on ourselves. Bit by bit, year after year, we encouraged the next best, the next biggest, the next you-name-it, all the while ignoring the smaller, more personal, more local restaurant, grocer, baker, candlestick maker . . . Now, most of those loyal, caring, small businesses have gone the way of the dinosaurs. I would venture that a great number of Americans today have never met their boss, and that doesn’t foster loyalty in either direction. Hence, the frequent moving on.
All of that to say kudos to Salem’s, and places like them, for their loyalty and their tenacity, and thanks to you, Sean, for finding and sharing them with us.❤️