By Lindsay Ruebens
UNC Staff Writer
The Durham VOICE
On any given afternoon in Joe’s Diner, there’s likely to be a random mix of families, professors, firefighters, doctors, police, mountain folk, city folk—even bikers.
“We even get a lot of the rich Ritz-Carlton types,” said diner owner Joseph Bushfan, 49. “I never would’ve expected that in a million years.”
Ever since the doors to Joe’s Diner opened on Jan. 2 of this year, the restaurant has attracted people from Northeast Central Durham and beyond. The diner’s location — on the corner of Angier Avenue and Driver Street — provides a convenient spot for Durham residents to stop and try Joe’s famous hot dogs, which he gets shipped in special from his native Boston.
Bobby Wade, who cooks behind the counter, said he’s been working with Bushfan since they began selling hot dogs together two and a half years ago.
Wade, whose personal favorite is the pastrami burger with hot mustard, said the Bull Burger and the regular hot dog are the two top sellers. Giant one-pound hot dogs are also popular.
“We’ve got some of the most interesting and best-tasting hot dogs you’ll find anywhere in the world,” Wade said.
Bushfan said that more than 100 people visit his diner a day. During the peak hours of 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., sales typically reach around $1,100.
“I really want to bring economic value back to this area,” he said.
It all started in 2007 when Bushfan retired from working as a celebrity security detail and moved to Durham with his new wife, Elaine O’Neal Bushfan, Durham’s chief district court judge. After selling hot dogs on a street corner, Bushfan had the opportunity to buy the Joe’s Diner property behind his stand.
Bushfan’s plans for the diner had included adding an adjoining wireless café. Although the space now has wireless Internet access, Bushfan said he’s been using the room for additional restaurant seating.
“Because it’s packed in here from 10 till 3, Monday through Saturday,” he said.
Bushfan also owns the property next door, which will open April 1 as a grocery store managed by Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers (TROSA).
While the location of Joe’s Diner has earned a tough reputation, Bushfan said he’s optimistic that the business will bring change to the area—and there’s evidence it already has.
The Walker family, from Durham, made their first visit to Joe’s Diner last Saturday afternoon. Jamar Walker and his wife, Tonya, said they’d heard about its positive influence on the neighborhood, which they said was immediately obvious.
“Just driving by, you can see the contrast between ghetto and good. It’s very apparent,” Jamar Walker said.
In his office, Bushfan keeps one particular document close at hand. It’s a police report of the area’s crime rate from November 2007, when Bushfan began his hot dog project, to August 2009. The neighborhood has experienced a 62 percent drop in crime.
“It’s still kind of mind-numbing—it hasn’t set in yet,” he said of the statistics. “I don’t think I’m Jesus or nobody, I’m just a man. But I’m here to stay.”
Bushfan said he hasn’t had any problems with crime at the diner, and as a former bodyguard and permit-holder of a concealed weapon, he isn’t one to put up with trouble.
In fact, Bushfan said that he’s had people he refers to as “gang-bangers” approach him about taking steps to find a job and leave behind the gang life—and that he has no problem talking to them.
“They put their pants on the same way I do,” he said. “I don’t back down from them. They just need a good, strong figure to give them a sense of direction and hope.”
Bushfan acknowledged that this community still needs help. To prove a point, he once offered a free hot dog to any patron in the diner who had a driver’s license. Nobody got a free hot dog.
“It’s an epidemic with people with no damn driver’s licenses,” he said.
Bushfan said that many people who get driving tickets fail to show up to their court hearing. As a result, they have their license privileges revoked.
“It’s sad,” he said. “I’d like to use the (wireless room) for a pro bono lawyer to come in and help people get their licenses and stop wasting taxpayers’ money. That would help turn financial problems around.”
The space will also be used for a local art exhibit on Feb. 21 complete with an art showing, poetry, music and food.
There are endless possibilities for the room—Bushfan even mentioned using it to host a hot dog-eating contest.
Along with the endless possibilities, there seems to be an endless variety of customers at the diner.
“I have the best, most racial crowd in here,” Bushfan said. “It’s like a melting pot. I love it. This community needs to have this boost.”
Among the diverse crowd is a group of about 40 doctors, lawyers and other business professionals who arrive by motorcycle. Bushfan said they typically come on Saturdays and had initially said, “‘Joe, we’re looking for a home.’” Bushfan said he welcomed them with open arms.
“We have clientele from all over,” Wade said. “The crowd has really been diverse, and we appreciate that and welcome that.”
Bushfan said one woman came down from North Raleigh and began to cry, telling him to never close the place. She told him she’d passed the location often when she was growing up, and that the diner has added new life to the familiar corner.
“I think it’s going to become a real positive workforce for Northeast Central Durham,” he said.
The diner has also been a job-provider for the area, although Bushfan said hiring a solid staff has been his biggest challenge yet.
“I’ve been trying to find good people to work, people with skills in the food service industry,” he said.
Every person Bushfan has hired has been taken out of unemployment, including his son, Macklin Bushfan.
Macklin, 21, does a little bit of everything from working the register to managing. “I’m learning as I go,” he said.
Macklin said there has been talk about making the diner a franchise and starting one at a new location, possibly in Burlington. “We’ll probably branch out and I’ll go to the next spot, wherever it may be,” he said.
For now, Joe’s Diner will continue serving its customers and doing what it does best—selling hot dogs.
“The hot dog is a phenomenon,” chef Bobby Wade said. “When it’s presented in the right way, it’s going to sell itself.”
Background information on Elaine O’Neal Bushfan: http://www.calea.org/online/newsletter/No81/oneal.htm
TROSA Web site: http://www.trosainc.org/