Dea Taylor has worked in the restaurant industry pretty much her whole life, but she’s never worked somewhere like The Diner Vancouver.
“I was pretty excited to apply because of the concept and what it’s all about,” said Taylor, a server at the new spot in central Vancouver. “I finally get to use my talents for something that’s really rewarding and means a lot to the community.”
The Diner Vancouver is a restaurant with a mission — Meals on Wheels People’s mission, specifically. The motto “serving more than just a meal” is spelled out on the wall of the diner, which supports the well-known nonprofit providing meals to older adults. Meals on Wheels serves about 3,500 seniors in Clark County; about two-thirds are homebound and receive packaged meals, and about one-third visit congregate dining centers serving a set lunch menu, typically in a community center.
Open 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily, The Diner Vancouver gives seniors more choices in what they eat, when they eat it and who they eat it with. Anyone of any age can patronize the breakfast and lunch spot.
“We didn’t want a greasy spoon kind of diner. We wanted really fresh food, local food but still have the nostalgia for the older folks,” Meals on Wheels People CEO Suzanne Washington said.
If You Go
What: Breakfast and lunch in a diner supporting Meals on Wheels People.
When: 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily.
Where: 5303 E. Mill Plain Blvd., Vancouver.
• • •
What: Meals on Wheels People Clark County spring luncheon.
When: 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 5.
Where: Hilton Vancouver Washington, 301 W. Sixth St., Vancouver.
There are two menus. One has classic diner grub such as burgers, sandwiches and breakfast served all day. A second, adjusted menu meets specific dietary requirements for the Meals on Wheels program; these meals can only have so much salt, sugar, protein and starch.
“Macaroni and cheese is never going to meet regulation,” Washington said.
Seniors enrolled in Meals on Wheels are automatically enrolled in “the diner club” and can donate toward one of the dietician-approved meals featuring fruit, vegetables, milk and whole grains. A patron could mix and match, though, donating what they can toward a nutritious menu item and separately purchasing a milkshake. The goal is to have a balance of paying customers and seniors who donate whatever they can toward their meal.
Due to the unusual way it’s set up, The Diner Vancouver doesn’t accept tips. Instead, there is a line on the receipt to donate to Meals on Wheel People.
The diner currently employs 13 people, all of whom make at least $15 hourly and receive benefits.
John and Linda Thompson tried the restaurant on Tuesday, ordering the meatloaf with scalloped potatoes and Fort Vancouver bacon burger, which has bacon, cheddar cheese, caramelized onions and house sauce.
“I’m pleasantly surprised. I think it’s a great idea,” John Thompson said. “Definitely, we will come back.”
They live nearby and saw people working on the long-vacant building. Linda Thompson said she plans to bring her Red Hat Society group.
That’s part of The Diner Vancouver’s mission — that it will foster social interactions and help address social isolation common among seniors.
“Especially as people age, you start to lose your friends and family members,” said Lucy Savitz, a Meals on Wheels People board member and vice president of health research at Kaiser Permanente in the Northwest.
She said social isolation often leads to poor health outcomes. Two years ago, Meals on Wheels People surveyed its volunteers and clients who said they wanted to dine with people outside their age group, not just fellow seniors.
“How do you create a sense of community? How do you create a safe place for people to congregate and come together and not feel like they’re different in some way, but that they’re part of the fabric of the community?” Savitz questioned. “By creating this communal space with the fabulous menu you’re going to draw people in across the generations.”
Through a regional survey, Kaiser found that people who reported social isolation and loneliness are 9.2 times more likely to have poor health, 19.2 times more likely to have a poor quality of life, 22.4 times more likely to have mental health issues (namely depression and anxiety) and 5.7 times more likely to have insufficient funds to buy food.
Savitz said she’s really hopeful for the restaurant’s success and ability to become a neighborhood gathering place.
“I always think about the show ‘Cheers,’ where everybody knows your name,” Savitz said.
The diner had a soft opening Feb. 11. On Monday, there were 142 customers. In comparison, 50 to 80 people visit the Luepke Senior Center’s dining room, Clark County’s largest Meals on Wheels dining room, though bingo day or other special occasions will attract up to 120 people.
The diner concept was first announced in 2017 when Meals on Wheels People said it would close its dining room at the Firstenburg Community Center. The dining room saw about 15 people for lunch daily, which was too few to justify keeping it open.
“That was fascinating because there are lots of exercise classes that are packed at Firstenburg with seniors, yet they would not come for lunch,” said Renata Wilson, COO of Meals on Wheels People. Some of the people she saw at Firstenburg are now carpooling to The Diner Vancouver.
Other centers in Oregon’s Multnomah and Washington counties have closed or merged due to congregate dining’s declining popularity.
“We want to put money into food and people, not into buildings. When you’re paying rent, utilities and all the overhead for a site where you’re only feeding maybe 10 to 12 people, it just doesn’t make sense,” Washington said.
The hope is that the diner will help the organization be more financially sustainable into the future as more seniors need its services. If the diner works out, Meals on Wheels would replicate the model within the Portland area or beyond.
“Just the response in such a short amount of time has been so overwhelming. None of us really had any idea if anyone would show up or if we would be flooded with people out the door,” said Tony Staser, Meals on Wheels People’s chief development officer.
Meals on Wheels People has never forayed into the restaurant industry before. It looked at other mission-driven restaurants for inspiration. Grounds for Opportunity Cafe, a cafe and training kitchen in Kelso, serves breakfast and lunch. The Sandbar, a “cafe with a cause” in Marsing, Idaho, serves Meals on Wheels seniors, as well as the general paying public. Seattle program FareStart provides food service industry training for homeless people.
The Diner Vancouver cost about $1 million to open, including $720,000 in construction costs. Most of the cost was covered through fundraising.
Meals on Wheels People picked the location, 5303 E. Mill Plain Blvd., for being centrally located and on a bus line. It’s also within the Tower Mall redevelopment site, but construction is a ways out. Washington said Meals on Wheels People signed a 15-year lease and would like to be a mainstay as the area is built out.
The 2,690-square-foot building, built in 1971, was at one point Arctic Circle and has been several Chinese restaurants. Meals on Wheels People revamped the building with a midcentury modern design and incorporated splashes of the nonprofit’s signature lime green. Most booths have hanging lights to help seniors see the menu, bar stools have cushioned backs, coffee mug handles are wide enough for people with arthritis, and acoustic panels in the ceiling help with sound.
“It’s hard for seniors to hear in many restaurants,” Staser said.
The diner will work out the kinks in the menu, Staser said, and aims to locally source as much food as possible. He said that on the diner’s second day of being open a couple who own a blueberry farm in Hood River, Ore., visited the restaurant and offered to donate blueberries. There are talks of using produce from the 78th Street Heritage Farm and working with other local farms.
The diner’s grand opening is slated for sometime in March.