ALGOMA TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Just north of Rockford sits Rosie’s Diner, a decades-old icon that has sat empty for more than a decade, “no trespassing” signs in the window.
It started the beginning of a new chapter Friday as crews removed the “Rosie’s” sign. It was the first step of a journey to Missouri, where the diner will be brought back to life and reopened.
Rosie’s Diner has a long history. First opened in the 1940s in New Jersey, the diner was originally called Silver Dollar. It was featured in some commercials, including a Pepsi commercial: the original owner in 1990 told The New York Times Pepsi paid him to use the location with 100 cases of Pepsi.
It was later featured in Bounty commercials: actress and comedian Nancy Walker played ‘Rosie,’ who cleaned up spills inside the diner with Bounty paper towels, The New York Times reports. It was renamed Rosie’s Diner in the 1970s.
ROSIE’S DINER IN THE EYES OF AN ARTIST
When the original owner was ready to sell, Michigan artist Jerry Berta, who traveled the country taking photos of diners, bought Rosie’s and brought it to West Michigan, setting it up at 4500 14 Mile Road near US-131 in Algoma Township.
The diner felt like a sculpture, the artist told News 8, referencing its curves and textured brick glass. He said Rosie’s was perfect.
On July 5, 1991, the already-iconic diner reopened near Rockford. It was set up to face the golden light in the evening in a large parking lot for car shows.
Berta designed a big “Rosie’s” sign to go along with the original “diner” sign, he said. The script was designed after a 1950s car script.
“I must have made a thousand ‘Rs’ to get that font just right,” he recalled.
It was a sign that was to be seen around the world. In 1992, photographer Lucinda Lewis took a photo of the diner for a calendar — Berta was in it.
“The next thing I know, she made this poster out of it. And we started getting calls from around the world — because our phone number is in here (the photo), right — like South Africa, Germany,” he said.
He recalled a trip to Hong Kong, where he met a man who claimed to own an American restaurant. When Berta stopped by, there were two photos of Rosie’s Diner on the wall.
The diner was also featured in three “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” episodes on Food Network, according to the site’s IMDb page.
Many memories were made at Rosie’s Diner over the years.
“It had a good connection with the community,” Berta said.
The diner could fit 98 people, seated closely next to one another. When it was someone’s birthday, everyone would sing, Berta said.
“Dads would come up with their 15-year-olds on a Saturday because they knew everybody would sing ‘Happy Birthday,’ just to embarrass their kids,” he said with a laugh.
In the diner’s fifth year in West Michigan, it was counting down to serving its 1 millionth customer. Berta said there was a contest, offering a prize to whoever brought the diner to that 1 million number.
“We had it built up and it’s just a fun thing,” he said.
The 1 millionth customer ended up being a couple who had just come from the hospital.
“They came in, they sat down and they were the millionth customer,” Berta said. “They had just come from … Saint Mary’s and (he) got diagnosed with cancer — and he was going to die. So this was to take their mind off of it.”
The crew did get their mind off of it, Berta said. The couple opted for a piece of his art for their prize and they were on TV.
“Their kids came by and told us what a wonderful thing it was,” he said. “It really took their mind off of it.”
The diner built its own community.
“My whole slogan was I didn’t know how to run a restaurant, but I knew how to be a customer. So you treat customers good,” he said.
‘WHY DON’T YOU BUY IT?’
During his travels around the country photographing diners, Berta said when he told owners he loved one, their response would sometimes be, “Hey, why don’t you buy it?”
Near the end of his time at Rosie’s, when people told him how much they loved it, Berta said he’d have the same response: “Why don’t you buy it?” He eventually did sell it in 2006. The new owners ran it until 2011, when it closed for good.
It was briefly revived in 2016, when a film crew used the diner as a set for “God Bless the Broken Road,” a faith-based movie that came out in 2018.
But for the most part, it sat empty, with some damage and broken windows here and there.
“People are mostly just fantastic, but then there’s a couple of people that get their thrill by destroying stuff,” Berta said. “Somebody actually tied a chain to the ‘diner’ sign and pulled it off with a truck … then realized it’s way too heavy to steal.”
The would-be thieves left the sign lying in the parking lot, he said, and it was later brought inside.
He was just relieved it wasn’t the “Rosie’s” sign.
“It would break my heart if it got crushed or got wrecked,” he said.
NEW SHOT AT LIFE IN MISSOURI
Dawn Perry has worked in the restaurant industry for 25 years, both as a server and as a manager. She said it’s the people who make her love the industry.
“There’s never the same day, ever,” she said. “You’ll always have new folks, new faces, new stories, people that share their lives with you.”
She’s seen kids grow up from infants to 20-year-olds at her restaurants.
“It’s just that that family aspect and that connection with people,” she said.
Perry always “had an affinity” for opening her own restaurant, she said. She found Rosie’s Diner online and made the decision to buy it with her husband, who has a background in restoring classic cars.
“We are classic car people, too, so we loved the idea of having this diner ready to go and ready … for other people to enjoy as much as we do,” she said.
“It’s like the perfect fit for this,” Berta said.
The couple is excited to bring it to its original glory, though they have a lot of work ahead of them.
The sign is just the first step.
“Actually this is easy compared to picking up a diner,” Berta said with a laugh.
In the spring, crews will move Rosie’s Diner down to its new home in central Missouri, about halfway between Columbia and Fulton.
There, Rosie’s Diner will be restored. The new owners are going to replace the flooring and add a kitchen in the back, Perry said — right now, it’s just a counter behind the customer counter. They’ll do all the work needed to bring it back to pristine condition, Perry said.
“It’s just the excitement of being able to bring something so iconic back to life. There’s so many of these diners that are just dying on the sides of the roads, like Rosie’s was, and it’s nice to be able to bring one back to Missouri,” she said. “We had one in town that just recently within the last three years closed, so there’s been a need and a want for something classic like this to come back.”
Don’t plan a road trip yet: Perry said it will take two to three years before the doors can open again. But once it is open, it will serve classic mom-and-pop restaurant food, hand-dipped milkshakes and the “Vinny’s Picky Kids Menu,” named after Perry’s youngest son.
Perry said it’ll be a long journey, but she’s excited.
“This sign is just the beginning,” she said.
As for Berta, he said he’s “still making art and I love doing it,” adding he and his wife are fortunate to have made a living as artists. He said he’ll be helping out Perry and her husband with the fun parts of their businesses, like designing mugs for the new Rosie’s Diner.
“It’s good that these are getting saved,” he said. “Most of the diners now are actually getting wrecked. There are a lot of diners, but people aren’t doing it. And so I’m so happy this one’s getting saved after all the work I put into it.”