Sofi Ackerman

What led you to select The Fleetwood Diner as the location featured in your paper?
The Fleetwood diner is one of the oldest establishments on campus, at the same time it is the kind of place that people either love or hate. Its customer base includes a very broad range of people, everything from students to old couples and blue collar workers from the area. It has a rich history that I was interested in exploring!

What was your favorite thing about this space?
I love the fact that Fleetwood is so classic American. This includes everything from the tiled floors to the counter where they serve genuine diner coffee. The place has not changed much in the last 70 years, and so it stands out in an area filled with boutiques and upscale restaurants.

Did anything about your observations surprise you?
I was surprised to learn how broad and loyal the Fleetwood clientele is. There are customers who have come to Fleetwood regularly for the last 30-40 years, which is just incredible. I was also surprised by how many Michigan students appreciate Fleetwood’s classic American breakfast menu, many of them still prefer eggs and hash browns over trendy breakfast food like acai bowls or avocado toast.

What is your favorite item on the menu?
The diner coffee! It’s served in thick ceramic mugs and comes with unlimited refills. As a student from Sweden, it does not get more American than that. If you’re hungry, I would recommend trying their famous hippie hash, it is almost as iconic as the diner itself!

The Fleetwood Diner
An ethnography

Paper by Sofi Ackerman
Instructor: Krisztina Fehervary, Associate Professor of Anthropology

”It’s almost always regulars. There is the regular morning people getting coffee, the regular lunch
people and then the regular drunks of course” - Erica (24), waitress

Introduction and Thesis
The Fleetwood Diner is a small diner restaurant in downtown Ann Arbor. The venue is one of the oldest establishments in the city and has served traditional American breakfast food around the clock for the last 70 years. This ethnographic study aims to understand the context in which the food is consumed at the Fleetwood diner, as well as how the physical features of the restaurant encourages a certain type of consumption. This paper also considers the shifting political economy under which the diner has existed, and aims to understand how changes in Ann Arbor income and demographics has influenced the diner. I come to the conclusion that the Fleetwood diner is one of the few Ann Arbor restaurants serving traditional American breakfast food in a space that includes little brand regimentation. Because of Fleetwood’s unique standing in an area otherwise filled with high-end fusion restaurants and novelty boutiques, the diner has become a popular spot for students looking to consume food they consider ”genuine” , ”real” and ”non corporate”. At the same time, Fleetwood is still a popular dining place for customers who value large portions and cheaper prices. In this paper, I draw upon ideas of political economy, commodification of cultures and cultural capital to understand the motivations of guests visiting Fleetwood.

Ethnographic description

Located on the corner between Liberty and Ashley in downtown Ann Arbor, the Fleetwood diner was built from a kit and opened in 1948. The diner is a metal building with a small front door and three windows to each side. It lies at the end of East Liberty Street, a popular downtown street with cafés, restaurants and various boutiques and shops. The restaurant marks the end of the street, since the connecting West Liberty street marks the trafficked route out of central Ann Arbor. Despite its positioning right by West Liberty, the Fleetwood diner has no parking spots for prospective guests.

The Fleetwood Diner interior has no booths or long tables, instead it is scarcely furnished with black garden style chairs and tables that can be moved and rearranged across the chess colored floor tiles. The diner also offers seating by a bar style counter facing the kitchen and cashier. The kitchen itself is predominantly on the other side of the counter, allowing the customer to see the stove, oven, fridge and fryer no matter where they sit in the restaurant. The only place concealed to
the customer is the dish washing station and a small room where employees change clothes. Along with the black garden stools and counter seating, the Fleetwood diner also offers outside seating along the pavement, an area that is fenced in during the winter months but kept open over the spring and summer.

Inside Fleetwood, the white walls are covered in bumper stickers representing political messages, sports teams, local Ann Arbor establishments and various locations in America. There is also a large plastic sunflower tied along the side of one wall. Next to the door, there is a small cork pinboard with information about local art fairs and cultural events as well as a row with framed pictures of regular customers who have passed away. The dominant material inside Fleetwood is metal, since the bar stools, the counter, the windows and the walls are all lined with the material. Despite the wide range of colorful stickers, the interior gives a colorless impression as the dominant palette is black, white and grey. The three fluorescent lights in the ceiling cause the diner to be very bright throughout the day and night. Sometimes music is played through the CD-player on top of the fridge, sometime it is not.

In 2014, the Fleetwood diner updated its roof top sign from a black and white, typewriterstyle sign with coke logos on each side to today’s new sign, a bright red neon sign with a yellow arrow pointing down on the building. The sign is larger than the previous one and enables the otherwise small and discrete building to stand out by the intersection where it is placed. Except for the large outside sign, the Fleetwood diner uses no other external signage such as menu signs or advertising. Though the diner became the first Ann Arbor restaurant to have its own website in 1995, Fleetwood has no official website today. Instead restaurant management communicates to a following of 5600 people via its official Facebook page, and the menu is found online through the handful of independent delivery companies active on campus. The tagline of the Fleetwood Diner is ”Home of the Hippie Hash” combined with the phrase ”the hippest little diners in the hippest Midwest towns”, the plural referring to Fleetwood’s second location in Lansing. The hippie hash is a warm hash brown dish with grilled tomato, green pepper, onion, mushroom and broccoli sprinkled with feta cheese. It is Fleetwood’s staple dish and said to trace back to the 60’s and 70’s when a large part of Ann Arbor’s population was in fact hippies.

The Fleetwood diner sells what is nowadays commonly called ”diner food”, which includes hash browns, eggs, sandwiches, pancakes and french fries. The menu is constant throughout the day and year, and its classic American offerings has not changed significantly since the restaurants opening. Except for the five types of salad, the Diner’s food offerings are all warm and served in large portion sizes. The drink menu includes brewed coffee, Dr. Pepper, Coke, Sprite and bottled water. The vast majority of the food is served in large portions on thick white porcelain plates, and the drinks are served in large plastic cups. The food is home cooked from scratch, yet it is presented in a functional, non elaborate way. For example, the hippie hash browns is served on the plate without decoration or toppings, and an order of pancakes comes with its sides simply placed next to it, contrasted to the elaborate decoration seen on trendy dishes sushi and acai bowls. The menu and
its undecorated presentation revokes values of simplicity and functionality best compared to the food one might prepare at home. The lack of elaborate food decor also invokes a sense of genuineness and familiarity as the food corresponds to the taste and look of food that some customers might have eaten from a very young age and are highly used to. Employees at Fleetwood state that all of the food is delivered by Sysco, an American corporation involved in the distribution of food products to restaurants. Sysco distributes food from all over the world, but since none of the menu items require foreign ingredients as inputs (the majority of the food is made from potatoes, eggs, wheat and ham), one could guess that the inputs are largely domestic. Fleetwood does not advertise the origin of its food in any way. Because the kitchen is placed right where guests sit and eat, the cooking of the food occasionally causes the building to warm up. Depending on the food
that is being cooked, fumes and smoke also fills the area from time to time. According to the diner’s Yelp reviews, some customers are bothered with both the temperature and the fumes inside the diner.

Overall, Fleetwood’s stripped down interior combined with the bright lighting and lack of color conveys an atmosphere of function and sobriety. Fleetwood does not offer a cozy interior to sit through a three course meal for hours, neither is it a place to sit and have coffee and study (there are also no outlets in the seating area). It is also important to note that while the neon sign and checked floors evoke a sense of American retro, the atmosphere differs from newer American Diners that actively pursue a colorful and retro interior (for example through red booths, jukeboxes or Coca Cola posters) to attract customers. Compared to other American diners, Fleetwood is much less colorful with its white walls and metal frames. Fleetwood has also taken no action to draw attention to its history, as there are no pictures or newspaper articles displayed on the walls. One could argue that while newer diners play on customer’s perception of ”American Retro”, the Fleetwood diner has undergone little change since 1948, causing it to be more genuinely retro than perceived on the first look.

The Fleetwood diner has one cook and one waitress on call at all hours of the day. None of them wear uniforms or name tags. When speaking to Erica, a 24 year old waitress who has worked at Fleetwood for two years, she states that no formal training was given when she started. She has not been instructed to talk to guests in any particular way except what she calls the ”regular waitress manners”, greeting customers and handing them a menu while they are taking a seat. After observing the guests for an hour on an early Wednesday night, I can conclude that students tend to come in pairs and sit along the walls of the diner, thus creating as much space between them and the kitchen counter as possible. Blue collar workers and other non student visitors tend to take a seat by the counter. According to Erica, the vast majority of Fleetwood’s clientele comes from regular customers who visit the diner at least once a week and always order the same thing. While I sit by the counter during my observations, I notice two types of visitors. Either students coming in pairs ordering fries or a drink while sitting down by tables adjacent to the walls, or single customers sitting by the counter. A clear majority of the customers that come alone are men in their late fifties. By talking to Erica, I learn that most of the non-student regulars are in their early fifties and work nearby. I notice that most of them simply enter the restaurant, sit by the counter and get their food served without having to specify their order.

Political Economy and History:
When the diner was opened by Donald Reid in March 17, 1948 it was originally called the Dagwood Diner. In the beginning the diner was used for a variety of purposes, including as a prepping area for vending machine sandwiches. Donald Reid sold the diner after 17 years of ownership. Since then, the exact timeline of owners is not fully known. Reid first sold the diner to a man named Robert Brown, who owned the diner for an unknown number of years. It was then purchased by a man named Kaye Dumsick sometime in the early 1980’s. Four years later, the diner was purchased by two cooks as a result of a bankruptcy court case on Dumsick who had failed to pay his bills. Since 1992 and until today, the Fleetwood diner is co-owned by George Fotiadis and Andy Demiri. Fotiadis and Demiri both reside in Lansing where the second Fleetwood Diner
operates.

In September 1997, the diner closed for a month due to a grease fire and a year later, the diner closed for several days following a severe thunderstorm. Apart from these two events, the restaurant has been open 24/7 all days of the week, with the exception of a few national holidays. On January first 2008, the Fleetwood diner went non-smoking, a controversial decision amongst both staff and customers. The non smoking policy lasted until noon the following day when it was revoked. In 2010, all Michigan restaurants officially became non-smoking, thus including both the inside and outside of the Fleetwood diner.

Aside from the fact that the exterior has been painted a couple of times and that fences and signs have been added and removed on a continuous basis, the Fleetwood diner has seen little physical change through the years. The diner menu has stayed fairly constant since its opening in 1968. In the diner’s early existence, it used to be a popular lunch and dinner spot for a broad range of Ann Arbor’s inhabitants (in 1970 Playboy magazine did an article on Fleetwood Diner calling in the best diner in the country). Since its founding and throughout the 60’s and 70’s, the diner was a popular destination for blue collar workers, especially during breakfast and lunch time. In the 60’s and 70’s, the diner was considered a popular place for hippies and students. The Fleetwood diner serves plain, classic breakfast food such as fried eggs, hash browns, pancakes and french fries. To drink, Fleetwood serves what is best described as ”diner coffee”, a plain cup of brewed coffee made
from the diners one single kettle. The coffee comes with unlimited refills. The Fleetwood diner menu is part of a kind of mass market offering connected to the rise of the large, prosperous American middle class. The diner was founded in the postwar era of 1948 and thus opened for business right as the expansion of the middle class began in the mid 1940’s, a time characterized by mass-production, standardization and an expansion of markets. Therefore, the food offered at the Fleetwood diner rises cultural associations to the postwar era of middle class mass markets. The ingredients are mostly American and require neither elaborate kitchenware nor intense labor. The food itself is greasy, carb heavy and served in large portions. As consumption moves from mass markets to increased market segmentation and customization, we see a new shaping of taste for niche consumption (Roseberry 2017, p.763) . Just like William Roseberry describes a rise in
demand for high end luxury coffees, breakfast food has also been tweaked and changed to fit an elite consumer. Trendy and labor intensive food like poké and acai bowls are one example of this, as well as classic dishes like toast or bagels being revamped with international high end ingredients like avocado, Tuscan kale, salmon or berries. The Fleetwood diner does not cater to these tastes, and their food more clearly aligns with traditional tastes of the common American breakfast.

In recent years, the disposable income of Ann Arbor residents has increased on a steady basis, resulting in the average Ann Arbor inhabitant to be one with significant spending power. Resulting from a flow of economic capital into Ann Arbor, the downtown area of of the city has seen an increase in high end establishments offering both fine dining and more high end casual food. Ann Arbor has also seen a shift in demographics since Fleetwood’s founding in 1948, with the city having become increasingly diverse in both ethnicity and national background due to both general globalization and an increase in international students at The University of Michigan. The shift towards a more heterogeneous population has lead to an increase in restaurants specialized on international cuisine tweaked to serve the taste of both Americans and internationals. Examples of this include Cuban restaurant Frita Batidos and Asian restaurant Pacific Rim, both within eyesight from the Fleetwood Diner.

Analysis:
The Fleetwood diner can be considered a historic Ann Arbor establishment that is one of the last of its kind. At the same time, some residents perceive it as a dirty restaurant serving unhealthy American food that they can not identify with. This analysis aims to understand both perceptions and shine light on global consumer culture in the context of the diner itself.
When conversing with past and existing customers of the Fleetwood Diner, I found that it was difficult to avoid the topic of dirt. Customers with negative perceptions of the place often based it on the fact that they found the restaurant dirty, with some stating so by just looking at it from the outside. When examining the interior of the restaurant, I find that the tables, floors, countertops and utensils are clean. Furthermore, the metal frames and garden interior provides for easy to clean surfaces as well. When I asked customers to elaborate on dirt in the Fleetwood diner, one woman preceded to say that the restaurant was warm. Anthropologists have explored the connection between temperature and perceived freshness before, and a study on the use of air condition in Singapore provides for a theoretical framework applicable on consumer perceptions of the Fleetwood diner.

In Singapore and other parts of eastern Asia, there is an increased assumption that the air surrounding people’s bodies should generally be cooled (Hitchings & Lee 2008, p.1). This interplay between bodies and temperature suggests for a change in physical desires, causing people to fear dirt coming from their own bodies (such as through sweating) to an equal amount as external dirt. As a result, heat opposes a threat to freshness in the same way that dirt does, perhaps causing the
heat in the Fleetwood Diner to be perceived as dirt by my sample customer. As I spend 45 minutes sitting by the counter in the diner, eating warm hash browns with warm coffee, all while food is being prepared right next to me, I do notice the heat and the discomfort that comes with it. Perhaps that is why there are coat hooks along the walls of the diner, though I notice most guests order and eat with their jackets kept on, usually while sitting far away from the counter. The perception of
Fleetwood as a dirty place might also derive from the concept of displacement, where one can examine dirt as a by-product of systematic arrangement (Frykman 1987, p.165). As mentioned both in class and from sample interviews, the fact that the food is made right next to one’s table evokes discomfort in some guests. This has to do with the smell and fumes resulting from the cooking, but also with a general discomfort that comes from seeing a process that is usually hidden. For example,
I am delighted to eat the feta cheese sprinkled on my hash browns, while I am less delighted to see the chef scoop out the same cheese from a large container under the kitchen counter. It is the same cheese, but the displacement of it impacts the perceived freshness of it.

Intuitively, one can not clearly determine if Fleetwood is an HCC or LCC establishment. After speaking to a handful of customers I conclude that the customer base falls in both categories, and that their underlying motivation for going to Fleetwood sometimes pinpoints if a customer is LCC or HCC. I spoke to one customer, a man in his forties eating alone, around 8PM on a Wednesday night. When asking him why he chose the Fleetwood diner he stated that he liked the
speed and taste of the food:

”I come here when I work late and don’t have time to cook myself. I like it because the portions are big and it’s cheap too. I usually get two eggs with hash browns cause that’s a regular dish that is always good.”

From the quote above, we see that some customers find a functional value in the food, price and service provided by the Fleetwood diner. As stated in Doug Holt’s interpretation of Bourdieu’s theory on cultural capital, the tastes of LCC’s inclined to appreciate what is functional and practical (Holt 1998, p.224). Moreover, there are customers coming to the diner for reasons not attributed to the food. Speaking with a friend of mine who is a regular at Fleetwood, she gave the following
explanation for her regular visits:

”The Fleetwood diner is just an Ann Arbor establishment. It is one of those places that has not been taken over by high end, healthy fusion restaurants, you know? I only get the food if I’m drunk since it’s really greasy, but I’ll get a coke or coffee and sit here with my friends, I want to support the place so it doesn’t have to be come a Starbuck’s or anything.”

In this case, my friend is going to Fleetwood for reasons different than the previous customer. She states that she does not appreciate the food (probably because her taste palette is different), yet she enjoys the surroundings of Fleetwood and finds value in the non-corporate, highly embedded nature of the store. As described by Holt, she is an HCC consumer who seeks out goods that are authentic and decommodified (Holt 1998, p.243). While customer number 1 might be categorized
as an LCC customer picking Fleetwood for its functional qualities, my friend can be considered an HCC customer since she goes to Fleetwood for an experience that she considers genuine. As a result, the Fleetwood diner is popular amongst both HCC and LCC customers.

Fleetwood partially communicates a counterculture as some of the stickers cater to the counterculture environment with provocative messages like ”Pangea Piercing” , ”9/11 Was an Inside Job” and ”Impeach Bush”. And so the store caters to a young left wing demographic, as well as to customers who enjoy the classic American breakfast. Moreover, Fleetwood actively excludes the groups of homeless people trying to sit in the diner by refusing to serve those who ask other customers for money to spend on food.

Even though the Fleetwood diner is considered iconic by some Ann Arbor locals, the diner does little to capitalize off of its brand image. As mentioned previously, employees do not wear uniforms and utensils are not branded with the Fleetwood name. In fact, the only place where one sees the Fleetwood brand is through the large neon sign on the roof. T-shirts printed with a picture of the diner in 1948 are for sale, but the sample shirt is discretely hung next to the soda machine. Because of the lack of employee control and lack of obvious influence on how the Fleetwood brand is used, I consider the Fleetwood diner an establishment with relatively low brand regimentation.

Because the Fleetwood diner offers traditional American breakfast food, the restaurant has become a popular spot amongst international students looking to get a taste of America (however, it should be clearly stated that in this case, the word ’taste’ is not limited to the taste of food, but also the taste of America through the environment and culture Fleetwood conveys). During my own freshman year of college, international students would go in groups to the Fleetwood diner since they had heard about it from siblings or older peers. Students would take pictures of the large neon sign upfront, presumably because fluorescent lighting has become a symbol of the American restaurant through depictions in movies and TV. Once inside Fleetwood, my peers and I would order a Coke or a coffee while taking pictures of each other in front of the sticker covered walls. It was common for students from Sweden, India, China and Japan to do this their first semester, and
exchange students would do the same thing in later years. It is important to note that while students aimed to experience the Americana/Route 66 culture by visiting the restaurant, many refrained to order food once inside. I explicitly remember a friend from India stating that she did not want to order food since she anticipated it to be ”too greasy and too big of a portion”. And so while the culture and atmosphere was desirable to international students, the traditional American breakfast food violated the pollution prohibitions for the same students. Looking at food consumption as something that constitutes selfhood and social identity (Friedman 1990, p.327), thus understanding the act of eating as an act of selfhood, we can understand student’s aversion towards Fleetwood’s food as a lack of identification with the context from which the food originates. The food offered in Fleetwood is greasy, carb heavy and served in large portions. Once eaten, one cannot get up and go continue an active day by running or going to spinning class. In fact, one literally feels the presence of a consumed portion as it lies in one’s stomach for hours after leaving. The students who consider eating a way of maintaining and preparing an active and effective body will therefore struggle to consume a traditional Fleetwood meal.

Student’s interest in the Fleetwood Diner can also be explained through the concept of commodification of otherness (Hooks 1992, p.343). Within commodity culture, we see the concept of ethnicity being packaged and marketed as ”spice” to an upper middle class consumer. The idea is that by consuming products said to represent foreign cultures, one spices up one’s own life by adding something unfamiliar and fun to it. Because commodification and appropriation of cultures occurs in the context of capitalism and white supremacy, one might argue that the theory is difficult to adapt to the Fleetwood diner as it is considered a traditional western restaurant. However, I would argue that the commodification of culture can take a class perspective as well, where upper middle class consumers spice up their lives by visiting establishments commonly known to cater to a working class population. In these cases, the working class is assumed to embody a sense of genuineness and nostalgia that the consumer enjoys. Because Fleetwood is historically known as a cheap working class diner, upper middle class students from a wide range of backgrounds might view a visit to the diner as a way to engage in the genuine, nostalgic atmosphere associated with a class different from their own.

Conclusion

The Fleetwood diner deeply distinguishes itself from common Ann Arbor restaurants through its lack of brand regimentation and highly functional material qualities. The restaurant is also one of the few locations in Ann Arbor still serving traditional American breakfast food that has not been tweaked to fit the shift in tastes from common, mass produced food to more niche international and trend cuisine. In spite of its unique positioning, the Fleetwood diner is visited by a broad clientele
ranging from blue collar workers to educated students and academics. Some visitors enjoy the functional qualities of the food, while others reject the greasy and carb loaded dishes while appreciating Fleetwood’s atmosphere, history and interior. The common perception of the diner as dirty can be explained through theories of heat and displacement.

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