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Champ's Diner -- Hoping for a comeback

November 17, 2012

Ainsley Cantoral, project manager for NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley, enters Champ’s with infant daughter, Ofelia. NeighborWorks has received a federal grant designed to help prospective lessees revive the historic diner.

WOONSOCKET – The venerable Champ’s Diner has already beaten the odds just by surviving. Now NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley is looking for someone who can really bring it back to life.
The 1920s dining car has anchored the Heritage Place retail plaza on Front Street for nearly six years, but NeighborWorks, the owner of the plaza, has never been able to find anyone to lease it as a going business.
For the most part, the impediments have been the same as those that hold back many small start-ups, including undercapitalization and insufficient access to credit.
“What’s happened now is that we’ve gotten a federal grant that’s going to allow us to give the right person a boost to be able to maneuver past those hurdles,” says Ainsley Cantoral, project manager. “We’ll be able to offer a flexible financial package to help overcome the capital challenges.”
The $379,687 grant is from the Office of Community Services, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services. NeighborWorks also plans on using a portion of the grant to redevelop the former Mulvey’s Hardware Store in Market Square, next door to the Museum of Work and Culture, but exactly how the funds are split up will depend on what kind of a plan surfaces for the diner.
The 1,700-square-foot diner has a dozen teal-blue stools in front of an original marble countertop where patrons once sipped coffee and noshed on eggs. Though they could use some spiffing up, many other period details are also intact, including a tile floor and walls, a solid oak icebox and cabinets and a concave, wood-panel ceiling.
Perhaps the biggest challenges a prospective operator may face are upgrading the kitchen and finishing off an enlarged dining room that was erected as an addition to the diner, to increase seating capacity, when NeighborWorks built Heritage Place in 2007. A non-profit real estate development company, NeighborWorks has its headquarters in the plaza, which also includes 13 other commercial and non-profit tenants, and 43 units of rental housing.
A Dunkin’ Donuts anchors one end of the plaza, Champs the other.
“We’re open to accepting applications from the seasoned restaurant professional who might already be running another business, but we’re also encouraging new entrepreneurs who might have a special vision for Champ’s,” says Christian Caldarone, director of asset management for NeighborWorks.
NeighborWorks will be accepting applications from interested parties until Feb. 1. One item that will be required of every applicant is a credible business plan.
Applications, along with detailed instructions on how to fill them out, are available at the NeighborWorks web site, http://www.neighborworksbrv.org. The site also includes links to several other organizations that can provide guidance in crafting a professional-quality business plan, including the Rhode Island Small Business Development Corporation, BuzGate.org, and Rhode Island SCORE.
As much as anything, running Champ’s is an opportunity to revive a storied chapter in the history of the city’s restaurant business.
Champ's was actually a thriving business on Park Avenue for many years until it was uprooted to make way for a Dunkin’ Donuts in 1989.
The car was relocated to “a muddy field in Scituate” for storage, according to NeighborWorks. There it remained, idle and exposed to the elements, for more than a decade until Dan Zilka, the director of the American Diner Museum, found the car and moved it to a salvage yard in Providence.
It was there that NeighborWorks Director Joseph Garlick stumbled upon the car and basically fell in love with it. It wasn’t until later that Garlick realized that the antique, boxcar-style eatery had been a dining destination in Woonsocket for generations, a discovery that prompted him to incorporate the structure into Heritage Place.
The Champ’s dining car is one of more than 600 diners produced by the Worcester Lunch Car and Carriage Manufacturing Company between 1906 and 1957, when the company went out of business. All of the assets of the company, named for its hometown city, were auctioned off in 1961.
While most of the company’s dining cars operated in New England, a few landed in such far-flung places as Florida. The Liberty Elm Diner, another Worcester lunch car, still operates in the Elmwood section of Providence, and there’s another on display in the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan.
Many of the company’s surviving lunch cars are said to be listed on National Register of Historic Places.

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