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Past Is Present: A Favorite Louisville Diner Looks Beyond Glory Days

Gibin George pushes a menu across the wooden table and pokes at the “Breakfast Platter” section. It’s a simple, laminated page with Twig and Leaf: Tops in Food stamped on top in winding orange cursive.

“Something I’ve realized, that I probably wouldn’t have realized if I hadn’t taken over the Twig and Leaf, is how much people love breakfast all day,” George says.

He pauses to stretch, his hand almost brushing the retro, cyan clock hanging on the freshly painted hot orange wall: “So many times people will be sitting here and they’re looking through the menu then I’ll tell them, ‘We serve breakfast all day,’ and that’s basically a deal-maker.”

This is just one of things George, a 27-year-old immigrant from India, has learned about running a diner since he took over Twig and Leaf in 2015. At that point, he became a new face in a diner industry that — both locally and nationally — is struggling to maintain its classic feel and history while appealing to people from his generation.

“When I look at the future for those people who have been coming here, of course they will keep coming here -- but what does Twig hold in the future?” George says. “What is going to be the reason Twig still stays Twig and Leaf? And that comes to the younger generation.”

Across the country, diners are facing competition from an influx of fast-casual dining options. This comes as the typical diner owners and customers are getting older, and food costs rise; and everywhere, diners are closing.

In New York City, there were a reported 398 diners last year as compared with 1,000 a generation ago. On the Food Network, the program “American Diner Revival” is in its third season of chronicling struggling diners in need of help across America.

Locally, Barbara Lee’s, a 24/7 joint, surprised regulars when it closed in March after owner Barbara Lee McCullock told her landlord she was getting older and needed to focus on her health.

Twig and Leaf nearly closed too, despite being a staple -- with its distinctive flickering neon sign -- on Bardstown Road since 1959.

The Twig’s Roots

One of the diner’s first owners was a man named Kelly Madison, who ran it for 22 years. During that time, it was said to have had the best burger in town and lines out the door. Madison eventually sold the establishment in the early 1980s, and a string of owners passed through the diner’s doors while its customer base and quality slowly declined.

“Initially, Twig and Leaf was the only place 24/7 on Bardstown Road, so everyone was here,” George says, sighing as he adjusts his dark blue baseball cap. “Then Steak and Shake and McDonald's went 24-hours, so that reduced the business. Soon enough the sales started going down, and as sales went down, the quantity went down and the quality went down.”

That’s the state Twig and Leaf was in when, in 2011, it was designated as a local landmarkafter a CVS pharmacy was rumored to be taking over the entire block. People didn’t really eat there anymore, but because of the good memories and the diner’s distinctive mid-century architecture, no one wanted to see it go.

So, the Twig’s building was saved -- it is now a historical landmark, But the restaurant’s quality didn’t improve -- this time because of health issues in the then-owner’s family.

That’s where George comes in.

He had just finished his MBA at the University of Louisville and was looking for a business opportunity. At the time he was considering opening a nightclub, but a friend on George’s cricket team told him that his cousin was looking to sell Twig and Leaf.

“At that point, I had no clue what Twig and Leaf was,” George says. “I had no idea it was a historical landmark.”

He agreed to shadow the old owner for about three months. Early on, he realized it wasn’t a particularly profitable line of work; there were days the diner only brought in $40.

But it had something else that was even more important: a history.

‘History and Heart’ of Diners

That history and heart, says Ashlee Clark Thompson, is what makes diners so important to a community.

“You have the owner who’s also flipping burgers and ringing you up and things like that,” she says. “There’s just a lot of love in what these owners did for a living. A lot of them loved the feeling that they got when people enjoyed their food, you know? And that is hard to put on a tax return.”

Clark Thompson is the author of the 2015 book “Louisville Diners,” and I met her in one of those diners — Burger Boy in Old Louisville — over some chili cheese fries. Her book explored more than a dozen greasy spoons in the city. But in keeping with national trends, several of the places she profiled have since shuttered.

Clark Thompson says part of this is due to the restaurant industry just being hard in general.

“But I’m concerned about it, just because a lot of these places are really, really great places,” she says. “And not just for the food they serve, but the people who have created these places.”

She pauses for a moment, a french fry dripping with bright cheese sauce between her thumb and forefinger.

“I don’t know, I think a little bit of it is, they have to compete with the flashier restaurants, with the showier restaurants,” she says.

Those restaurants have a little bit more leeway when it comes to how much they can charge per plate. Think $20 entrees as opposed to a $7 burger, soda and onion rings.

Diner owners also have to compete with new restaurants in different ways, too. Often your local greasy spoon doesn’t have a social media presence, which -- in our current culinary climate -- can make it hard to attract new customers.

“They just exist, right?” Clark Thompson says. “So a lot of it is, you’re depending on your regulars, but you’re depending on new folks, too.”

Some diner owners have successfully executed revamps. There’s Ashley Christensen of the James Beard award-winning Poole’s Diner in Raleigh and John Currence of Big Bad Breakfast in Charleston. Even Burger Boy, which was struggling for years, underwent an ownership shift. Dan Borsch took over in 2008, and the place is now very popular with U of L students, among others.

That’s what Gibin George is trying to pull off at Twig and Leaf: attracting new customers while maintaining the place’s integrity and feel. He offers students discounts. He’s thinking about installing TVs. His waitstaff are all in their teens and 20s. He’s even hiring a chef who can provide unique weekly specials.

Glimmers of the Good Ol’ Days

At Twig and Leaf on a recent weekend, the booths and barstools are packed. George waves from behind the counter between flipping pancakes on the griddle. He introduces one of the diner’s new regulars, Glenda Marker.

Since George took over, she comes to the Twig every weekend and orders the exact same thing: two eggs whites, biscuits, ice tea and coffee.

Marker grew up in Louisville and remembers Twig and Leaf during its heyday in the 1960s. She says the way George has focused on improving the diner, she’s starting to see glimmers of the good old days -- including through younger customers.

“I come here quite a lot, so I see families coming in, bringing their kids,” Marker says. “And I say to myself, ‘This is great!’ And the kids like it.”

Who knows whether George’s improvements will be enough to keep the Twig operating for the long haul. But on days like that one, he sees the past and present come together.

“Today’s generation looks for what’s the next big thing,” George says, nodding his head toward a young couple sitting on a pair of diner stools. “But it’s weird -- everytime I tell someone that this place has been here since 1959, their expressions change. Just the history associated with it, just imaging how many people at some point walked in and out of here.”