Diner Dreams and Declines: The Kullman Dining Car Company


Interior of an abandoned building with a deteriorating roof, scattered debris, and overgrown vegetation.

While exploring the area for a different site, I stumbled upon this abandoned property, marked by a large pile of household refuse and debris from commercial demolitions, improperly discarded. As night began to fall, I hesitated to venture inside alone. This caution might have been fortuitous, for on a subsequent visit to Newark, New Jersey, I discovered a makeshift bed crafted from an oversized couch. It seemed someone might be using this as a makeshift sleeping area, unwittingly inhaling potentially lethal chemicals not meant for human respiration.

The entry to this forsaken place was through a semi-open truck loading dock, obstructed by a concrete barrier, presumably to halt further looting of the structure or to deter unethical contractors from dumping their illegal waste under the veil of night.

Once an industrial site, this property was marred by environmental pollutants such as metals, paint, and polyaromatic hydrocarbons. Ninety-one years ago, it was operational before falling into the City of Newark's possession due to the former owners' failure to meet their tax obligations. Exposed to weather, its structure deteriorated, evidenced by a damaged roof and numerous breaches in the walls. The vicinity was marred by extensive illegal dumping.

Desolate scene inside a dilapidated structure with graffiti-covered walls, charred debris, and a black liquid on the floor.

In a neglected corner, a stack of barrels leaked a dark, oily substance, likely a form of hydrocarbon such as petroleum, across the ground. The area was permeated by a strong, indescribable odor that induced an immediate sensation of lightheadedness from my recollection of exploring years ago. Despite the dilapidated state of the roof, the pungent odor persisted inside. The contents of these corroded barrels posed a clear respiratory hazard.

Adjacent to these barrels, a mixture of hardened and powdered substances spilled from torn bags, covering additional barrels and contributing to a chaotic amalgamation of barrels, powder, and debris. This juxtaposition highlighted the severe environmental degradation.

On the other side, a larger accumulation of bags contained the same white powder, albeit intact. The remainder of the site was littered with an assortment of debris: bricks of various sizes, wooden fragments, soil, bicycle parts, PVC piping, discarded furniture, and other remnants of its prolonged neglect. The building lacked any additional floors, either basement or upper levels, emphasizing its desolation.

In the evolving history of industrial sites in Newark, New Jersey, the Kullman Dining Car Company Inc., later known as Kullman Dining Car Builders, Inc., stands out for its significant contribution. Beginning its journey in Newark in the early 1920s, the company's trajectory, as documented by Moody Services registrars and historical Standard Stock Offerings, reflects a notable chapter in the local industry. Corroborated by various news articles, Kullman's initial operations were rooted in Newark, marking the starting point of its evolution. The company later relocated to a two-story factory at 390 Frelinghuysen Ave, Newark, NJ 07114, before making subsequent moves to Avenel, NJ, and ultimately ceasing operations in 2011 in Lebanon, NJ.

Photograph of the exterior of the Kullman building, with the company name prominently displayed above the entrance, vehicles parked in front of business.
Their Avenel, NJ location back in 1983. 

Post-Kullman era, the historical thread becomes less clear, with no records surfacing about subsequent tenants or owners of the spaces once occupied by Kullman. Research reveals that Soneko M.R. Inc. emerged as the last known entity associated with the location. Soneko M.R. Inc. is distinguished by its engagement with bentonite, an absorbent aluminum phyllosilicate clay known for its vast deposits in Fort Benton, Wyoming, hence its name. Additionally referred to as Montmorillonite clay, named after Montmorillon in France where it was first identified, the company specialized in developing a powdered composition of bentonite. This innovation found applications as thickening and gelling agents in the production of non-aqueous paints, including enamels and varnishes, illustrating a continued legacy of industrial innovation tied to the Newark area.


Travelers on the Northeast's highways for the past fifty years have undoubtedly glimpsed the distinctive diners crafted by the Kullman family. These eateries range from sleek, stainless-steel structures reminiscent of train cars, to quaint, colonial-style diners crowned with weathervanes, to Mediterranean-themed ones decorated with small statues. Robert Kullman's grandfather, Samuel Kullman, was the visionary behind this company, starting it in 1927. As a Russian immigrant who moved to the U.S. at 13, Samuel initially worked as an accountant for the Tierney Dining Car Company, one of the two premier diner manufacturers of that era, the other being Jerry O’Mahony's firm. Eventually, Samuel ventured out on his own, pioneering the manufacture of his unique, wheel-equipped, pod-shaped diners. These mobile diners, much like those of his competitors, could be easily relocated to serve hearty meals like hamburgers and beef stew, as well as coffee, to truckers, thereby capitalizing on the burgeoning trucking industry. Moreover, the Kullman company extended financial support to immigrant families, offering the diner as a foundation for Jewish, Italian, Polish, and later, Greek immigrants to establish a foothold in America. This, in turn, enabled their children to pursue more profitable careers, setting a precedent for the American Dream.

Following his service in World War II, Harold Kullman, the father of Robert Kullman, joined the family business, expanding it by constructing larger diners. Kullman Dining Car Company was among approximately twenty New Jersey firms specializing in diner fabrication. Competing local brands included Silk City Diners in Paterson, Mountain View Diners in Little Falls, and Jerry O'Mahony in Elizabeth. However, the competitive landscape in New Jersey has since narrowed, leaving Musi Dining Car Company in Carteret and Paramount Modular Concepts in Oakland as notable contemporaries.

During the industry's heyday, New Jersey was home to several prominent diner manufacturers: Fodero Dining Car Company in Bloomfield, Silk City Diners in Paterson, Mountain View Diner Company in Singac/Little Falls, Swingle Diner Manufacturing Inc. in Middlesex, Paramount Dining Car Company in Haledon, and Manno Dining Car Company in Fairfield. In the late 1940s, these companies were prolific, with Kullman producing 30 to 40 diners annually. These diners were assembled in trailer-sized modules, fully equipped with furniture and decor, ready to be transported and merged into fully functioning restaurants on site.

Kullman was renowned for crafting stylish, high-quality diners characterized by Art Deco design. The company was a pioneer in adopting new materials, like stainless steel and Formica, and in applying innovative construction techniques garnered from diner manufacturing to broader architectural projects. This forward-thinking approach led to the introduction of "accelerated construction" into the industry lexicon. By the 1990s, in recognition of its broadened scope and innovation, the firm rebranded as Kullman Industries.

When Robert Kullman joined the family business after he graduated from Bucknell University in 1969, the diner industry was facing a downturn, partly because of the rise of fast-food chains. By 1988, the demand for new diners had dwindled to just two orders, prompting Robert to steer the company towards a different path. He expanded the business into constructing modular structures for a variety of uses, including schools, day-care centers, government buildings, the refurbishment of diners, facilities for telephone equipment, and prisons, such as the Hudson County Jail in Kearny. This pivot to modular technology not only saved the company from the declining diner industry but also opened up new opportunities for constructing jails and other facilities.

Under Robert Kullman's leadership as CEO and president, the company secured significant projects including food kiosks for Disney's Animal Kingdom in Florida, the United States embassies in Turkmenistan and Guinea-Bissau, a community college in Middlesex, Massachusetts, the Hudson County Jail in Jersey City, a minimum-security prison in Philadelphia, Newark’s 911 Emergency Center, and the Essex County Jail. The company's foray into international markets saw a remarkable achievement in 1999 when ARC-GmbH American Restaurant Concept, based in Stuttgart, Germany, placed an order for 30 diners to be exported. This marked the company's first venture into the international diner market, with these diners operating under the name 'Miss Masy's Diner,' representing an American-style sports bar concept in Germany. This diversification of business not only showcased Kullman's adaptability but also highlighted its capability to innovate and thrive in new markets.

The diner industry, known for its resilience and capacity for reinvention, traces its origins to a modest beginning in post-Civil War Rhode Island during the late 19th century. In Providence, a pioneering individual named Walter Scott began selling food from what was then known as a night-lunch wagon. This innovative concept quickly caught on, with factory workers in Providence forming queues at his wagon, and before long, the meals-on-wheels idea had spread throughout New England and ventured southward to New York and New Jersey. As the model evolved, these mobile eateries shed their wheels, established permanent locations, connected to utilities, and erected signs that lured customers in with the inviting smells of coffee and frying bacon, marking the transition from mobile wagons to the cozy, stationary diners we recognize today.

By the early 1920s, the term "lunch wagon" was replaced by the more elegant "dining car," eventually shortened to "diner," reflecting the evolution of these establishments into community staples. The design of these diners also became standardized, featuring long counters and an interior layout optimized for efficiency, embodying the classic diner aesthetic that has become iconic.

The Great Depression underscored the diner's reputation as a "Depression-proof" business model, thanks to their ability to facilitate quick customer turnover and maintain low operating costs, even as traditional restaurants struggled. The "golden age" of diners, often identified as the 1940s, eventually encountered challenges in the 1950s with the emergence of fast-food chains, which began to encroach on the diner's customer base. Despite these challenges, diners remained a beloved part of American culture, with the New York Times reporting on September 23, 1951, that there were 6,000 diners across the United States, primarily east of the Mississippi River, serving 2.4 million customers daily. Throughout this evolving landscape, the Kullman company, founded in the 1920s, emerged as a significant contributor to the diner industry, creating an estimated 1,500 dining establishments over eighty years. This legacy spanned from the early days of lunch wagons to the development of modern, sprawling stainless-steel diners, demonstrating the industry's enduring allure and the timeless appeal of the classic American diner.

Kullman's legacy in the diner industry is evident in many iconic establishments across the United States. Their craftsmanship and innovative designs are showcased in diners such as the Chester Park Diner on Route 206 in Chester, the Union Plaza Diner on Route 22 in Union, the American City Diner in Washington, D.C., the Ritz in Philadelphia, the Candlewyck Diner in East Rutherford, the Menlo Park Diner in Edison, the Americana in Shrewsbury, the Park West in Little Falls, China 46 in Ridgefield, the White Rose System diner in Roselle, the USA Country Diner in Windsor, and the Golden Eagle Diner on Route 130 in Cinnaminson. Additionally, the company is credited with constructing the latest version of the Tick Tock Diner on Route 3 in Clifton.

While Kullman Diners has made a significant mark, New Jersey's diner history is also enriched by other manufacturers, such as the Jerry O’Mahony Company of Elizabeth. O’Mahony was responsible for creating Max’s in Harrison, New Jersey’s longest-surviving diner built in 1927, the Summit Diner in 1938, and the glamorous Miss America Diner in Jersey City during the 1950s. Unfortunately, Max’s Grill closed its doors in 2007 and was subsequently demolished between 2010 and 2011, marking the end of an era for one of New Jersey's diner landmarks. These establishments, both those still in operation and those remembered, serve as a testament to the rich tradition and enduring appeal of diners as key components of American culture and social life, reflecting the evolution of dining habits, architectural design, and community hubs over the decades.

In Manhattan, NY, the story of the West Side Kullman diner, known as the Lost Diner, situated at 375 West Street, reflects the changing landscape of New York City's real estate and the cultural shifts that impact such iconic establishments. After half a century of operation, the diner closed its doors in 2006, marking the end of an era. Throughout its years, it underwent numerous transformations, adopting different names and themes in an attempt to adapt to the evolving tastes and trends of the city. Originally opening in 1956, it became known as the Lost Diner in 1991, transitioning through several identities including Seafood Organic by 1997, the Video Diner by 1999, and later, the Reel Diner and Miss Liberty Diner. In 2002, it was rebranded as the Lunchbox and, shortly before its closure, became Rib in 2005, which ultimately closed in 2006. In 2016, the diner was demolished to make way for luxury condominiums, highlighting the relentless push towards urban development at the expense of preserving historical and cultural landmarks.

Another poignant story comes from the Shalimar Diner in Forest Hills, which arrived in 1974 and was demolished in 2019. Despite its cinematic fame, featuring in the 2013 movie “The Wolf of Wall Street” and the CBS show “Blue Bloods,” it closed due to a combination of rising rents and declining business. The diner was available for relocation at no cost, yet the financial burden of rigging, transporting, and securing land at a new location proved too steep a challenge for potential rescuers. The demolition of the Shalimar Diner underscores the difficult reality faced by many historical diners; despite their cultural significance and communal value, they are vulnerable to the pressures of urban development and economic factors.

In 2005, Kullman faced a pivotal challenge when a contract to construct a U.S. embassy in Tajikistan fell through, leading the company to file for bankruptcy. This setback paved the way for entrepreneur Avi Telyas to step in and reshape the future of the company. Under his guidance, the company was rebranded as Kullman Building Corporation, marking a new chapter with a focus on modernizing its operations and product offerings. Among the various new ventures, building dormitories emerged as one of its most rapidly expanding sectors, showcasing the company's adaptability and its ability to tap into emerging markets.

Despite these efforts to rejuvenate the business, Kullman Building Corporation succumbed to its financial troubles and declared bankruptcy for the second time in 2011. This closure led to the liquidation of its assets, including a range of equipment from unused construction machinery and a Lincoln robotic welding system to office furniture and computers. Notably, the auction also featured a state-of-the-art Peddinghaus thermal steel fabricator, highlighting the advanced technology and capacity the company had developed. These assets, covering everything from manufacturing and power tools to metalworking, fabrication, welding, woodworking, and painting equipment, were made available to the highest bidders.

In the aftermath of Kullman's dissolution, XSite Modular emerged as a new entity, formed by the management team that departed before the company's final bankruptcy. XSite Modular acquired all of Kullman's Intellectual Property at the auction, signaling the continuation of Kullman's legacy in a new form. This transition illustrates a cycle of innovation and rebirth, common in the business world, where the end of one enterprise can lead to the foundation of another, carrying forward the knowledge, experience, and innovations of its predecessor.

You can see my past writeup of Kullman in my 'Abandoned Additives and Coatings' post. This 1.06-acre plot, transitioning from its historical industrial uses, is currently up for lease. It is being offered as a paved space, ideally suited for parking trucks and chassis. A practical feature of this property is the chain link fence that surrounds it, providing security and demarcation for the eventual new owner. This transition from an abandoned site with a rich industrial history to a functional property ready for immediate use reflects the ongoing evolution of urban landscapes. The provision of the land 'as is' offers potential lessees or buyers a canvas to repurpose the space in a manner that suits their needs, whether for logistics, storage, or other commercial uses, breathing new life into a plot steeped in history.


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