Murat Can Bilgincan reporting

Yankee Doodle’s Life and Death

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Here is an article I wrote for a journalism class taught by Tom Herman, a recently retired Wall Street Journal reporter. On December 4th, 2007 my article was foreshadowing the demise of the Yankee Doodle, a landmark Yale diner. On January 29th, 2008 the Doodle closed its doors for good. An alumni movement failed to revive an old blue tradition…

Middle-Aged Cook: Where did the Redskins player got shot?

Regular Customer: In the head!

Old Waitress: Jesus!

This is the communal dialogue that I heard as I walked into Yankee Doodle. When I entered the tiny, old-fashioned diner an old waitress with deep wrinkles greeted me: “Welcome hon. What can I get for you today?” To her right was a middle-aged cook with thick glasses and an expressionless face. I quickly sat down at one of the dozen stools. I looked at the menu items that were scattered on the walls, but could not decide. The Camel cigarette machine behind my stool, the family photos hanging above the grill and the old-fashioned Coke fountain were distracting me. Later, I saw a frankfurter wrapped in bacon and cheese; it was lying right next to the grill. “What are those called?” I asked the white-haired cook. “We call them Pig in a blanket.” the cook replied. Right after he gave me my delicious “Pig” I started chatting with Rick Beckwith. As soon as he started speaking, his face gained expression.

Rick’s grandfather worked at a diner in Oxford, CT. He always dreamed of operating his own diner one day. God was willing to make this wish come true. Rick’s grandmother won a $300 prize at the church lottery, which would allow them to open a diner. Rick’s grandfather designed his diner all by himself and the Doodle opened its doors to public in 1950. It was an instantaneous success and McDonald’s that had just started to open franchises around Connecticut contacted Rick’s grandfather. “They offered Grandpa the opportunity to open the first McDonald’s in Hamden, CT, but he refused to leave the Doodle.” Rick said.

When I asked him whether there had been any changes to Grandpa’s original design, “Although my father and I have tried to stick to the original design as much as possible, there have been some changes. When the shop was first opened, the Doodle was in reverse order. The stools, the grill, the fountain, everything was by the opposite wall.” Rick replied. Over the years the hours also changed: “We used to be open at night until the mid-70s. My father, Lewis Beckwith, could not find a trustworthy employee. So, he had to be at the Doodle all day long and had very little time for his family.” Thanks to the cops who would regularly eat at the Doodle at night, Lewis Beckwith never had to deal with crime, which was a major issue in New Haven back in the day. However, being away from home for endless hours was sufficient reason for him to start closing the Doodle at nights.

Some of the important changes took place even before Lewis Beckwith’s time: “Grandpa had designed the store in a compact fashion so that he could operate it on his own. He soon realized that grilling and serving at the same time was too much work. So, he hired somebody.” In addition, Rick’s grandmother would make a home-cooked special, like lasagna, every day. Soon, the customers began to complain when they ran out of the daily special. Consequently, the daily special was removed from the menu and Doodle became all-burger.

“Why do you stick to the old fashioned diner design? Why did you not change the shop completely?” I asked Rick. His answer was exactly what I had expected: “The Doodle has become a Yale tradition. I cannot change how it looks any more. The alums love seeing it the old way.” Doodle’s collaborating with a secret society and a fraternity in their tap and pledge processes respectively prove that this tiny diner has become an integral part of the Yale tradition. Rick thinks that the old-fashioned looks capture other customer segments as well: “People have a nostalgic longing for the past. The retro-trend is not only prevalent in clothing but also in dining. I believe that Grandpa’s old design attracts many high school students these days.”

Despite having become a Yale tradition and going along with the global retro-trend, business at the Doodle is not as good as it used to be: “The main factors that affect my business negatively are the current situation of the economy, increased competition, utilities costs and the extremely high rent that I am paying to Tyco” (copy store in New Haven). Rick reveals that his main competitors are the food carts. Since the carts have much lower overheads compared to the Doodle, they can easily drive the unit prices down.

As I overheard from an African-American customer the Doodle has another rival: “My kids normally order burgers from Educated.” Educated Burgher, a diner that is located right across the street, offers a more comprehensive menu that includes omelets and pancakes. It has comfortable seating also. To add to his agony, Rick has to pay $75 per square foot when the norm is $30. “I am paying more per square foot than anybody else out there!” Rick complains.

Doodle’s competitors can drive the prices down, but this would only gain them a few customers; it cannot create culture for them. On the other hand, Yankee Doodle has a culture that will probably keep the tiny diner in business no matter how high its overheads go. One of the most important parts of the Doodle culture is the eating competition: “The eating competition first started in 1989 when Ed Anderson asked to be honored for having eaten 10 burgers.” Rick was pointing at the plaques of the record breakers as he continued on with his story: “Then came professional eaters, like Timothy ‘Eater X’ Janus who was featured in the August 06 issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine and Ed Jarvis who broke the record on September 25, 2003 with 31 burgers in 23 minutes.” When eating challengers contact Rick, he asks for a day’s notice so that he can order more burgers and remembers to bring buckets, in which unsuccessful challengers can throw up.

When I asked Rick about the Doodle’s future, he gave me a grim response: “The Doodle will end with me unless somebody takes it over. It could end tomorrow or in a year. Who knows…” Rick, a graduate of the University of Connecticut who worked in finance upon graduation, has received a business offer from a Japanese entrepreneur. For now, Rick would prefer to keep his new project a secret. However, this job opportunity is not the main reason behind Rick’s decision: “Ever since I took on the responsibility in 2000, I have not been able to spend enough time with my three kids. My father knew that this would happen. That’s why he did not want me to take the Doodle over.”

Remember the old lady who had welcomed me to the diner? At this very moment, her eyes started glittering with emotion. She was Rick’s mother, Pat Beckwith. “How would you feel if the Doodle closed some day in the near future?” I asked her. Pat’s answer did not only make her own eyes watery but mine too: “I know that everything has an end, but Doodle’s closing would be a tragedy; his (Rick’s) father gave us this whole life.”

Author: bilgincan

Murat Can Bilgincan is a Turkish journalist and filmmaker who has worked for CNN and on PBS' "Frontline." Bilgincan holds a bachelor's degree from Yale College and a master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School. He teaches an independent journalism seminar at Koc University in Istanbul.

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