Emerson alumni aim to explore the secret lives of diners

by Rebecca Szkutak / Beacon Staff • January 28, 2015

Courtesy of Tom Smith
Courtesy of Tom Smith

Diners serve up more than just pancakes, vintage charm, and a distinctive waitstaff—and a new project by two Emerson alumni aims to prove it.

Tom Smith and Alecia Eberhardt, who graduated from Emerson in 2011 and are now engaged, created the blog Diner Porn in February 2013 to capture their experiences through photography and slightly fictionalized stories. Today, they’re preparing to take a road trip documenting restaurants from Illinois to Georgia and self-publish a book chronicling their expedition.

Smith came up with the original idea, which he said came naturally. He is from northern New Jersey, and Eberhardt is from Long Island, New York; when they were growing up, going to diners was a big part of their lives.

“They are weird, and that’s what I like,” Smith said.

The couple now lives in northern New York running a multidisciplinary creative studio, Eberhardt Smith. They frequently visit places that have what they see as cool vintage aesthetics like brightly colored leather seats, old-fashioned neon signs, and space-age metal tables. Anywhere with coffee always brewing and breakfast served all day checks off as a place they would visit.

“Where else can you order spaghetti and meatballs and pancakes at the same time?” Eberhardt said. “Not many places.”

Since they started Diner Porn, Smith and Eberhardt have visited more than 35 diners specifically for the blog. Smith estimated he has visited over 100 in his life.

Eberhardt said she always prefers to get breakfast food—her go-to choice is a bagel sandwich with an egg and cheddar cheese, and a side of onion rings. When visiting a eatery, Smith said he likes to order a variety of food, often trying out what the waiter or waitress recommends.

Diner Porn didn’t get much attention until Tumblr, the platform that hosts the blog, featured one of their pictures taken at the Historic Village Diner in Redhook, New York on the side of every user’s main page —a welcome surprise for Smith and Eberhardt. Overnight, the blog accumulated 14,000 followers on Tumblr, they said, and currently has around 60,000 followers.

“There are so many good ideas in the world; you never know which ones people are going to latch onto,” Eberhardt said. “You put things out in the world, and you just don’t know how people are going to react to it.”

In 2013, the Huffington Post called Diner Porn its “new Tumblr obsession.” The blog received messages from international followers from Great Britain, Japan, and Italy saying that Diner Porn made them want to visit America to try out these establishments, Smith and Eberhardt said. The couple said they stumbled upon an article in an Italian newspaper that said their blog was essentially the epitome of America.

This spring, Smith and Eberhardt plan to journey across the country and visit over 20 eateries. They wanted to see different styles of diners that exist outside their home states, but said they needed to find a way to finance their journey.

"We really wanted to take Diner Porn to places other than New York and New Jersey, but we don’t get paid to do any of this,” Eberhardt said. “It would have been ridiculous for us to do this roadtrip on our own.”

They decided to publish a book featuring photos and stories they hear along the way, and turned to the popular fundraising website Kickstarter, launching a page in November. For $30 or more, donors could request a signed copy of the book; about 100 people are now waiting for a copy. In a month, Smith and Eberhardt raised $7,500—$1,000 more than their original goal.

The book is set to be released in July, with much of the writing to be completed during the trip, according to Eberhardt and Smith. They said they intend to fill the book with vibrant photos that capture what makes each diner unique.

“I’m just extremely humbled by the fact that people share this project and are interested in it,” Smith said. “It means a lot, the fact that people even look at it.”