What Can Credit Unions Learn from Bethesda’s Tastee Diner

In 1982 I moved to Bethesda, Md. It is a zip code address with a post office, but there is no city. The local government is the Montgomery County council. There is no local representation. As a result the Bethesda area’s fate is not controlled locally. A dominant objective of the County Council has been to stress development and the growing tax revenue that results.

Since the metro line opened in 1984, Bethesda has gone through waves of building booms and increasing construction. All local gas stations have been replaced by 12 story or greater condominiums. Local shops such as a fresh fish store, barbershops, nail salons and second hand consignment outlets survive only until the next rent increase.

The development boom has accelerated this past year with the construction of a new metro purple line connecting with the original red line stop. On top of this juncture of the two lines are three 30-40 story glass and steel office centers. No historical site such as the farmers market, no single or double story retail space is safe from this development driven construction frenzy. All the familiar, locally-owned businesses are being replaced by high end retailers, national chains and the latest trendy eateries.

The Tastee Diner

One business has avoided this construction destruction: the Tastee Diner. First opened in 1935, it is the only restaurant that has survived economic crisis and successive waves of ever dense building. The life span of any restaurant in Bethesda is measured by the years left on the lease as landlords seek increasing returns from their valuable holdings.

Tastee Diner is literally a throwback to the dining car layout of train travel. It has not changed its seating format of wooden booths or sitting at the counter and watching the cook work at the grill. It even has a jukebox at each table. For a quarter you can hear Johnny Cash Walk the Line or other 1960s rock and roll hits.

The sign on the door says: “Welcome, Open 24 hours.” The diner closes only 42 hours per year from noon on Christmas eve to opening at 6:00 am the day after Christmas.

The menu is classic American “comfort food.” Fried chicken, meat loaf, burgers, creamed chip beef on toast, etc. There are specials of the day and a senior menu for over 55. Kids eat free in the evening, one per each paying adult. Prices are the best food value in town. All drinks have free refills. The diner doesn’t have a liquor license, a key source of restaurant income.

Three years ago the local DC cultural magazine listed the diner as one of the top five restaurants to go in the greater Washington area for pancakes on Shrove Tuesday.

At the Foot of Marriott’s New Head Office

Today, the 85-year-old diner literally rests at the foot of the construction of the new international headquarters of the Marriott hotel chain. It will be dwarfed by this 27-story office building that will tower over it in every possible way.

How Do You Survive?

As we left the diner this past week, I asked the manager how they’ve avoided the fate of all the other local businesses. How can you possibly stay here in this increasingly upscale, luxury retail environment that constantly turns over renters every three to five years?

The answer was simple: “We own the land.”

The message for credit unions worried about fintechs, new entrants, big bank competitors or the constant refrain that you have to be big to survive is to remember the Tastee Diner model.

Your members won’t go away. Local loyalty can trump all the newcomers in the world as long as we remember that our members “own the land.”