'I want people to be able to step back in time when they come here’
By Steven Hoffman
The Borough of Oxford, like other small towns of its size, is constantly changing and evolving. But one constant―one favored fixture―through all the years and all the changes has been a classic American diner situated at 233 South Third Street, at the edge of the town’s business district.
After spending more than a dozen years listening to stories about the connections that people have to the diner, owner Pam Benjamin fully understands her duty as the caretaker of the Miss Oxford Diner, a nostalgic treasure that allows locals to remember their yesterday or simply to enjoy a lunch tomorrow.
“I hear all kinds of stories from people who come in and say, ‘I worked here’ or ‘I met my wife here,’ Benjamin explained during an interview at the diner. “This diner is like a living, breathing organism. It has a life. It's been here for so long now that it's a part of the community. The diner is an attraction because of the age of it, and because of its stability in the community. It's really an attraction on its own.”
The diner arrived in Oxford in 1954. It is an example of the Silk City Diners that were manufactured by a division of the Paterson Wagon Company, later known as the Paterson Vehicle Company, in Paterson, New Jersey. The company produced an estimated 1,500 such diners between 1926 and 1966. Diners had their heyday in the 1950s, and the further we get away from that time period, the fewer classic American diners there are to enjoy a hamburger, a plate of eggs, a milkshake, or simply the comforting atmosphere that they offer.
Benjamin wants the Miss Oxford Diner to continue to be a place for comfort foods and comfortable conversations among friends. One of her favorite moments is when a customer who hasn't been in the diner for 30 or 40 years steps back inside and says, 'It looks the same as what I remember.’
“I want people to be able to step back in time when they come here,” Benjamin explained.
Many customers make the diner a regular part of their lives―they stop in for breakfast on the weekend or have a standing lunch scheduled with the same group of friends. Others might visit whenever meatloaf, a local favorite, is on the menu. Benjamin welcomes them all with a friendly smile and a cheerful greeting.
“It's like a family here,” she explained. “People come here to eat, but they come here as much for the socializing as they come for the food.”
As is typical for diners, the Miss Oxford Diner offers a little bit of everything on the menu.
“We have an extensive menu for a small place,” Benjamin said. “It's the kind of comfort foods you would expect to get at a diner.”
Chicken corn soup is a regular special on Mondays, while chicken pot pie is served up each Tuesday. On Wednesday, spaghetti is the featured dish, and meatloaf is on the menu on Thursday. There are seafood specials on Friday. Everyone has there favorite regular menu item.
“People love our burgers,” Benjamin said. “We only use fresh ground beef.”
Anything with turkey is popular, especially hot turnkey and turkey club sandwiches. The Miss Oxford Diner also offers an old-fashioned cole slaw that has a bit of a southern taste that is very popular.
Benjamin has learned the ins and outs of running a diner over the course of the last 14 years. She was working as a legal secretary for a law firm in nearby Elkton, Md., when she started helping out her friend, Jeff Lawson, who owned the Miss Oxford Diner, sometime around 2003.
At the law firm, Benjamin handled the schedules for the lawyers, did the billing, made the legal filings with the county court, and took on an ever-increasing number of chores that the law firm needed her to do. It was challenging work, and she enjoyed it. But after more than 12 years of high-stress work at the law firm, she was also at least starting to think about a change. She wanted to have her own business at some point, but she wasn't necessarily looking for that opportunity right away.
She started helping out Lawson by running the diner on the occasional day or some weekends so that he could have a break. She immediately liked the diner and its customers.
“People were friendly and very nice, and they welcomed me,” Benjamin said. “I enjoyed the people and the service aspect of it. I'm a service-oriented person. I like to wait on people, to take care of people. I've always been a people person.”
Benjamin said that everything in her life, including the legal background and management experience that she gained at the law firm, helped prepare her for running the diner on the business side.
As a legal secretary at the the law firm, she was often working to help people in a moment of need―people rarely seek out the help of lawyers when life is going as they would like it. The diner offered a completely different atmosphere.
“Here, you're giving people food,” Benjamin explained. “You're giving them a milkshake.”
Lawson wanted Benjamin to become a partner in the business, and she eventually did. When he was in the process of moving away in 2007, she took over full ownership of the diner.
Running a busy diner is not easy, and Benjamin is very involved.
“It’s like farming. You have to be here all the time,” she explained.
On one recent Saturday morning, Benjamin handled the cooking for the early shift. She cooked the food for 84 different tickets before 2 p.m., which means that she probably fed close to 200 people in one shift.
One of the biggest challenges of running a diner is staffing it with enough good people who aren't afraid of hard work and some stress. Benjamin complimented the staff she has assembled, some of whom have been working there for years.
The short-order cook position is critical in a diner because the cook is handling so many different tasks simultaneously. The short-order cook has to be able to multitask, prioritize, and work well under pressure. The fast pace can be hard on the servers and dishwashers, too. A breakdown in any part of the operation can result in unhappy customers.
“I tell my employees that every job here is important,” she said. “Every job here can be very difficult. This diner will go from zero to sixty just like that. But you really do need every person doing the job for everything to run. If everyone is working as a team, it's still tough, but things can go smoothly.”
There are other challenges, too. Food prices have increased, and the costs for utilities also go up.
Benjamin likes to keep the diner as original as possible, but that means putting up with a refrigeration system that is not modern or energy-efficient.
The extra effort is worth it, she said, to maintain a business that is such a part of the Oxford community.
There is a growing nostalgia for diners. With each passing year, there are fewer and fewer of them to be found. The Miss Oxford Diner was included in a book about diners in Pennsylvania, and every once in a while someone will arrive with the book in hand on a tour of the different diners in the region.
“I have young people who come here who got interested in diners and they want to stop and eat in this one,” Benjamin explained. “There’s always something going on here.”
In addition to being included in a book about diners, a scene of the “Amish Mafia” television show was filmed at the Miss Oxford Diner. Several movie directors working on independent films have used the diner to shoot some scenes. One person who is recording a CD had his picture taken for the cover in the diner.
Numerous community events and fundraisers also take place at the Miss Oxford Diner. One example is the Eli Seth Matthews Leukemia Foundation benefit car show.
Benjamin said that they are always supportive of veterans and police officers. On Veterans' Day each year, the veterans can eat for $1.
“We try to give back to the community as much as we can,” Benjamin said. “There’s always something going. I think supporting our veterans and local law enforcement is very important, especially at this time.”
Benjamin said that she wants people to think of the Miss Oxford Diner as if it’s their own place because, without the community support, there would be no need for the diner. Referring to the bar that was the inspiration for the popular 1980s television show, Benjamin says that the Miss Oxford Diner is “Cheers without the beers.” The diner, like the Boston bar, is a place where people feel welcomed―and they probably know your name, too.
If Benjamin has her way, that is the way that it will remain.
“We want the community to have this place where people can enjoy the nostalgia of a diner and enjoy being with each other,” she said. “This might be my business, but so many people have a vested interest in it. They have an ownership in it, and I think that's a good thing for the community. The diner is a part of this community. I would like to see it stay as original as possible.”