FOLSOM — In tough economic times, businesses have to keep evolving or face extinction, according to the owners of the Harley Dawn Diner on Route 322.
They had been doing well running the traditional steel-car diner, serving homemade food and baked goods, when the 2008 recession hit.
“Everyone’s patterns changed,” said April Emmons, who has run the diner for 22 years with her husband David, the chef. “People were not doing the same things.”
Rather than contract the business, the couple decided tough times called for reinvesting in the property to make its appearance match the kind of food they serve, which is locally sourced and fresh.
They also wanted to become energy efficient and sustainable.
Five years ago, they installed a 95.2 kilowatt solar field that provided all of the electric the business needed.
Then they started planning to rebuild the structure to make it energy efficient and to put in a geothermal system that would supply all the heat and cooling needed — with a little boost from the solar panels.
Geothermal systems use the constant temperature underground, which stays between 50 degrees and 60 degrees, to heat and cool buildings.
And they knew they needed to upgrade the look of the place.
“People do sometimes judge a book by its cover,” Emmons said. “The old building was very unremarkable. It didn’t represent what we do on the inside.”
So they knocked it down and built new, closing the business for a year in the process.
The diner reopened June 29 with an open floor plan, huge energy-efficient windows to let in lots of natural light, LED light fixtures and a new kitchen with efficient appliances.
Seating capacity increased to about 95 from about 75, she said.
Alan Goldstein, of Ventnor and Mount Laurel, who was eating there Thursday, said he was a regular at the old place but this was his first visit since it reopened.
“I like the high ceilings,” he said of the open feeling of the dining room. “The Angus burger was done to perfection.”
“We needed this to keep in businesses another 22 years,” Emmons said. “It would have been very difficult for the old model.”
To do the project, they needed to absorb the loss of income from having it closed for a year. But it was worth it, she said.
“We burn no fossil fuels now,” Emmons said, except for a small gas flame used in the kitchen. Sometimes only an open flame will do, she said.
They expect to recoup the cost of the geothermal system in two to five years. They had some help paying for it from a competitive grant from the United States Department of Agriculture.
Some aspects of the traditional diner haven’t changed. There is still counter service, the food is all home cooked, breakfast is served all day and the hours are long — 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
But now the diner has a liquor license and serves mostly locally made wines and beers, and even liquor for cocktails.
They have added homemade ice cream and homemade pasta to their offerings.
“People really want to connect with where their food comes from,” Emmons said. “They want to know how it is prepared, about sustainability.”