Silver dinerEsslokaldiner in K-town
Saturday, one o’clock: The parking lot (N. Am.)Parkplatzparking lot is full, the air loud with traffic. The second I enter Sam Kullman’s Diner on Mainzer Strasse, though, the noise of “K-town” fades away. Outside is a city in Rhineland-Palatinate, but inside is America.
I hear laughter and silverwareEssbestecksilverware to clatterklappern; hier: klirrenclattering on plates as I breathe in the aroma of hot bread and hamburgers. The man behind the bar looks up from a trayTabletttray full of drinks and asks, “You looking for me?”
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I am. Jeff Everts, his name embroideredgesticktembroidered on his crispfrischcrisp, short-sleevedkurzärmeligshort-sleeved shirt, is the manager here. Behind him, silver kitchen doors swing open. A waitress races out, her tray heavy with burgers and fries. Jeff takes a step back to let her pass, then he shows me to my table: number 17, a red vinyl boothhier: Nischebooth. We sit down with a couple of glasses of root beer with ice cubeEiswürfelice cubes — just like in the States.
I ask him how a native of Rochester, New York, came to work in Kaiserslautern, a city with a name US soldiers could never pronounce.
“I always wanted to do something like this,” he says. “I was drafted (N. Am.)zum Wehrdienst eingezogendrafted and came to Germany at the end of the Vietnam War. When I got here in 1973, there were 80,000 Americans in Kaiserslautern. Now there are about 40,000. We had our clubs and our gas stations, so you really didn’t have to speak German if you didn’t want to.”
From dishwasher to restaurant manager
Jeff learned German, though — and how. After spending a few years in the military police, he left the Army, married a local girl, had kids, and worked at his inlawsSchwiegerelterninlaws’’ business. Then, 15 years ago, he saw Kullman’s Diner being built. He asked if they needed someone to manage it, and was told that they did — under one condition: He had to start at the bottom. For three months, he worked in the kitchen, washed dishes, and cleaned tables. I ask him if he brought any experience in the food service to the job.
“Nah,” he says with a sheepish grinverlegenes Lächelnsheepish grin. “I was always on the other side of the bar.”
I place my order with a waitress, and Jeff disappears into the kitchen. Above, ceiling fans to spinsich im Kreis drehenspin. Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra smile in a photograph on the wall, and a Statue of Liberty stands nearby, holding an electric-light torch (N. Am.)Fackeltorch. It’s kitschy, fun, and cheerful — and it makes me feel like a kid again. I hear Americans at the other tables, too: military families from Ramstein Air Base or other area installations, all out to enjoy something easy and familiar, something that reminds them of home.
This diner was actually built in Lebanon, New Jersey
Jeff returns, and the waitress brings the food. I sink my teeth into Kullman’s hickoryHickorynussbaum-hickory barbecue ribRipperibs. The meat comes off the bone like butter. They’re as good as the ribs I once ate at Leatha’s Bar-B-Que Inn in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. I tell this to Jeff, and he grins.
“Yeah, business has been going great here, which shows the quality is good and the service is good,” he says. “This diner was built in Lebanon, New Jersey, by Kullman Industries, the last business that built this kind of diner. My boss started planning this in the 1990s. He was in dealings with Kullman’s for about five years until they finally built one.
“"They built it, to take sth. apartetw. zerlegentook it apart in four pieces, and ship sth.etw. versendenshipped it to Rotterdam. Then they to truck sth. (N. Am.)etw. mittels Lastkraftwagen beförderntrucked it down here. I remember going to work in Bad Kreuznach in the morning, and there was just a foundationFundamentfoundation. When I came back in the evening, the diner was standing there.”
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Kullman's: Five locations in Germany
This diner seats 150 people, making it the smallest of Kullman’s five locations. The others are in Ludwigsburg, Regensburg, Würzburg, and Linthe, a big 240-seater on the A9, some 50 kilometers southwest of Potsdam. Actor-director Til Schweiger loves that place, Jeff says, and even used it as a location in his 2012 action-thriller Schutzengel, Jeff tells me. Real road warriors (N. Am. ifml.)Straßenkämpfer(in)road warriors like it, too. “They open at 7 o’clock in the morning for the truckers,” he adds.
As we talk, Jeff watches what’’s going on in the diner, taking in a loud party at the back and the family in the next booth with four little kids. — one of them is about to to veerausscherenveer into the path of a fast-moving waitress. Jeff motions to the waitress to take care.
“Germans ask me, ‘Why are you here and not in America?’” he tells me with a shrugSchulterzuckenshrug. “I say, if you have to work, it doesn’t to matterwichtig seinmatter where you are. You’re paying your taxes, going to work. I’d probably have to have two or three jobs in the States. So, yes, I’m happy here.”
Highway magic in Mannheim
Sunday noon: The highway to slingschleudern, werfenslings me past forested hills. A sign recommends Kloster Rosenthal — historic, pretty — but my eyes can’t get enough of the massive aircraft on the horizon: an American C-17 transporter flying in slow motion over the trees. Before long, I drive over the Rhine, the river the Allies so famously crossed in March of 1945. disusedstillgelegt, ausgedientDisused barracksKasernebarracks sit next to the highway in a perfect military row. Clothes hang from some of them, the flutteringflatterndfluttering flags of refugees.
It’s not long before I arrive at Benjamin’s American Diner in Mannheim. Waves of heat come off the B38 highway as I open the glass door and go in. A waitress wants to give me a booth in the dining room, but I ask for a different table — one in the airy tent outside. When I’m seated, my waitress places a glass of iced tea in front of me and waits for my order. I ask for a burger. Looking at the tables around me, it seems to to be the right choice.
I ask for a burger. Looking at the tables around me, it seems to to be the right choice
“Runaround Sue” is playing on the sound system. boomingdröhnendBooming American voices fill the air. A woman walks up and introduces herself as Shirley Williams. Surely Shirley is American?
“No, I’m half Puerto Rican, but my stepdad is American,” she says. “I was born in Germany.”
Shirley has been working here for seven years. The business once relied on the soldiers next door at Sullivan Barracks, headquarters of the 7th Signal Brigade. But that installation, and the rest of Mannheim’s US bases, closed down years ago.
“In Mannheim now, the bases are being used only for the immigrants,” she says, keeping an eye on the customers. “But we still have Americans in K-town and in Wiesbaden. I think they’re coming back, because now I see even more Americans around here.”
Ordering food in English
Benjamin's is a stand-alone diner; it has no other locations in Germany. Shirley says that’s fine with her. They have plenty of return customers.
“You see the difference between Americans and Germans when you come here,” she says. “The Americans are a little bit crazy — in a good way. They laugh, they’re open. That’s why people keep coming here. If Germans have been on vacation in the States, the first thing they do when they’re come back is call us and say, ‘I need to come over, —because I want to keep that feeling.’”
German kids like it here, too. Shirley says schoolteachers bring them in so they can practice ordering food in English. Other German families have started coming in specifically for that reason, too. Another reason may be Pablo Rodriguez, the head chefKüchenchef(in)head chef, who hail fromherkommen aushails from New York City. once upon a timeirgendwann einmalOnce upon a time, he came here to visit his brother, who was stationed in Mannheim.
The Americans are a little bit crazy — in a good way. They laugh, they’re open
“After one month here, I ran out of money. Then I thought: ‘What am I going to do?’ I went on post and applied for a job as a dishwasher, although I’m trained as an executive chefKüchenmeister(in), Chefkoch, -köchinexecutive chef,” he explains. “They said, ‘You’re not qualified, but we will offer you a job as a head cook.’ I didn’t plan on staying. — I to have a job lined upeine Stelle in Aussicht habenhad a job lined up in Monterey, California. But I got a job offer I couldn’t refuse, and I’ve been here ever since.”
Across from us, a couple of Americans are telling their waitress a story. If I weren’t talking to Pablo, I’d listen in — just to hear Americans talking about American things. It’s in places like this that I miss home the most.
“I haven’t been to New York in a while,” Pablo says, “but when I get homesick, it shows in my food. Because I remember how food tasted there, and that’s what I do.”