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At Conn. college, retro diner concept is brand new

Sacred Heart University’s new ’50s-style diner is the only one of its kind in New England.

It’s 2017, and fresh, local, sustainable,and healthy are the buzzwords in most college dining halls. But at Sacred Heart University, it’s something entirely different: retro.

This fall, the Fairfield, Conn.-based school opened a ’50s-themed diner on campus. And it’s something students won’t find anywhere else nearby. “We’re the only diner on a university or college campus in New England,” says Mark Tammone, resident district manager at Sacred Heart with Chartwell Dining Services.

The old-school eatery was the brainchild of Sacred Heart University President John J. Petillo. Hailing from what many would call the unofficial diner capital of the world—New Jersey—Petillo approached Chartwells 3 and half years ago about putting a similar concept on campus. At the same time, students were requesting more late-night options. A burger-and-fries joint that could double as a social hub seemed like the perfect fit. “We wanted a place where people could get together other than their rooms,” Tammone says.

JP’s Diner's Fresh Toast Burger (left) and Red Velvet Chicken and Waffles.

Most people in the Northeast have specific ideas about what a diner should be like. So Tammone knew that JP’s Diner, named after Petillo, would have to stick with tradition. “We wanted to take a step back in time,” Tammone says. To create the vintage vibe, Chartwells installed working jukeboxes loaded with oldies (as well as new music), a big-screen TV that plays old black-and-white movies, and of course, plenty of chrome. The 4,500 square-foot diner has seating for 105 people (along with seven counter seats), as well as 40 outdoor seats that can be used during the warmer months.

The menu is an homage to the classics, too. Think hamburgers and cheeseburgers, club sandwiches, grilled cheese, patty melts, BLTs, chicken tenders, onion rings, disco fries and coleslaw. Naturally, American-style breakfasts like scrambled eggs, omelets, pancakes, waffles and French toast are served all day. For dessert, guests can treat themselves to apple or lemon meringue pie, coconut cake, rice pudding, and chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry milkshakes. And those in the mood for something lighter have their pick of black bean or turkey burgers, grilled chicken sandwiches, and salads like turkey cobb and chicken Caesar. Students looking for a quick bite in between classes can also pick up egg sandwiches to go.

In the age of quinoa-kale bowls and Korean barbecue, you might wonder how such simple fare can grab the attention of sophisticated millennials and Gen-Z’ers. But according to Tammone, the appeal of JP’s makes perfect sense. “Students nowadays are very food savvy. They know good restaurants and they know what goes into their food,” he says. “But when it comes down to it, they still love comfort food. They love a burger. When it comes to classic food, its always in.”

JP’s operates just like a traditional diner. There’s a host to seat you when you walk in, servers to take your order and bring your food and bussers to clean up. When the bill comes, students can use dining dollars to pay for their meal. And though Chartwells manages the diner, students play a big role in running day-to-day operations as servers as well as cooks. Tammone also tapped Chartwells’ student success internship program for managers.

Petillo envisioned JP’s to be a fun social space for students, including those who live off campus. So the hours needed to match their schedules. The diner is open from 7:30 a.m. until 1 a.m. Sundays through Wednesdays, and until 3 a.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. And because it’s a stop on the Sacred Heart shuttle route, it’s easy to access anywhere from campus, even on cold winter days. “It’s a great hangout spot. Instead of sitting in a dining hall with 300 people, you can have an intimate meal at a table for four,” Tammone says.

Though it just opened full-time a few weeks ago, the diner is on the fast track to becoming a new favorite among students—as well as the Fairfield community at large. After local news covered the ribbon cutting ceremony, word about JP’s quickly spread. “Our campus is open to the public, so we can’t deter people from coming on campus,” Tammone says. “We’re not really publicizing it to the outside, though a lot of people know we have a diner.”

Great food aside, part of what people love about diners is that they’re familiar and comforting. But within the college setting, it also manages to be unique. “A lot of parents who’ve visited have kids at other schools too,” Tammone says. “And they say no other school has anything like this.”

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