Hollywood Diner

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Baltimore, Md.
(410) 355-4698

Objective: To empower at-risk young people with self-sufficiency skills through employment.

In a Nutshell: The Hollywood Diner is operated by a local youth development agency, and employs youth referred by local government and youth-serving agencies. Youth employees receive food service and hospitality training in a supportive work environment.

Where It Happens: A few blocks north of Baltimore’s renowned Inner Harbor. The diner is open seven days a week from 6 a.m. to 4 pm.

When It Began: The diner was shipped to Baltimore in 1981 to be the site for Barry Levinson’s film, “Diner.” After the filming, the city purchased the diner and envisioned it as a tourist attraction and working diner operated by high school culinary arts students. It closed in 1985 and sat vacant until 1990, when it was purchased by the Chesapeake Center for Youth Development (CCYD). 

Who Started It: Ivan Leshinsky, CCYD’s longtime executive director and a veteran of many jobs at coffee shops and hotels. He believed that Baltimore’s expanding array of tourist attractions would open a lot of jobs in the food service and hospitality industries for local youth. CCYD is a network of alternative schools, after-school programs, social work agencies and job-training centers.

Who Runs It: Dino Xanthopoulos was hired about a year ago to reinvent the restaurant with a new menu and new hours and style. He also directed improvements to the restaurant and upgraded the equipment. Josh Harrold was appointed project director, primarily to coordinate training and restaurant operations. Two other adult staff members assist in managing the restaurant as well as training and supervising the 10 to 12 young people working there on typical weekdays.

Early Obstacles: The diner was a risky endeavor for a youth development organization with no background in restaurant management. CCYD opened the diner without a solid business plan, sufficient capital or a long-term lease. The equipment was old, and the facility constantly needed repairs. Also, job training was a higher priority than generating revenue from restaurant sales, but finding adult staffers with the right mix of business and training expertise was difficult.

Overcoming Obstacles: The city helped to pay for capital and structural improvements and granted the diner a 20-year lease. Management and training are improving but have a way to go, says Leshinsky. Holding out promise for the diner’s future is its recent selection as a venture project for the Baltimore Community Wealth Partnership, a local project that is providing expertise to help develop a realistic business plan and restructure the training component to meet the needs of the business.

Cost: The yearly operating budget is $382,000. About $45,000 of this goes to trainee stipends for youth, who receive minimum wage ($5.15 per hour) and tips.

Who Pays: Earned income from food sales and catering account for about 75 percent of the cost of restaurant and on-site training operations, and a service contract with the Baltimore Office of Employment Development provides $40,000. Private funding has come from the Goldsmith Family and the William Baker Jr., Baltimore Community and Dresher foundations, among others.

Who Else Has Kicked In: CCYD holds fund-raising events and receives private contributions and corporate sponsorships. The diner also received recent donations of equipment from Micros and Denny’s.

Youth Served: About 40 to 50 youth, ages 16 to 21, are involved each year. Training is offered to “at-risk” young people, because they are out of school and unemployable or have more severe issues, including delinquency. Almost all have come to the attention of one or more of the local government agencies responsible for serving children, youth and families, or they’ve come from CCYD’s community-based programs.

Youth Turn-On: The young workers get lots of individual attention. “Some customers have become mentors to the young people, continuing the relationship long after the trainee moves on,” Leshinksy says. “Raking in a few good tips doesn’t hurt either.”

Youth Turn-Off: Many youth feel that the job-training stipends are too small. Some staffers have to travel long distances from low-income neighborhoods on public transportation to get to the diner.

Research Shows: Internal tracking over the past decade shows a zero percent recidivism rate while the youth are living in the community, participating in CCYD programs and working at the diner. The youth typically work there for six months. No thorough study has been conducted of youth after they leave the diner program.

What Still Gets in the Way: “The biggest challenge we face in moving the Hollywood Diner toward organizational profitability is our board’s and staff’s desire to continue to use the diner as a training facility,” says Leshinsky. The dual goals of providing service to at-risk youth and operating a business present a difficult challenge, but Leshinsky believes the diner could become self- sufficient by 2005.