More than three years ago, I went on a soul-seeking road trip to Portland and reconnected with an old friend from home, whom I hadn’t seen in 15 years. “I know where we’re going to eat; you’ll see when we get there,” he said. We pulled up to a restaurant called the Black Bear Diner, and I looked at the sign with a combination of confusion and recollection. And that’s when I learned that a little business from back home had become A Big Deal, now with 61 locations in eight states.
The Black Bear Diner opened in 1995 in the northern California town of Mt. Shasta. It was about 25 minutes from my home and was a “luxury” of sorts, so it wasn’t a destination. But it was about 15 minutes from the town where I went to school and youth group, so once in a while a group of us teenagers would load into a few cars and go get dessert at the Black Bear. I moved away two years later, and that was the end of that.
My home county is one of the poorest in the state of California. The timber industry provides some of the income, and it tends to be a “feast or famine” existence. When I see businesses mentioned in my hometown newspaper, I don’t recognize most of them, because they come and go. When something or someone makes it to the big time, it’s a rare thing. (The NFL starter who’s now married to a successful actress? Oh yes, we brag about him!) Well, the Black Bear Diner is a big deal, and according to its Wikipedia page, even got a mention from the New York Times in 2009.
Three years ago, I had a long commute for a few months. It just so happened to coincide with the opening of a Black Bear Diner whose sign could be seen from the freeway I drove. Every day, I had a hint of pleasant nostalgia.
And one day about a year ago, I was on a difficult run when I came across a construction fence with a “Coming Soon: Black Bear Diner” sign inside it. I stopped and took a couple pictures, smiled, then found another gear to keep going the last few miles home.
Sure, it’s now a chain of restaurants in eight western United States (and hopes to be expanding nationwide soon!), but the Black Bear has history, which was recounted in an article last week in the local newspaper. The diner was started by lifelong Mt. Shasta natives who are still active in the community. They give back, through donations to a number of local groups, as well as giving $750,000 to the Make A Wish foundation over the last five years. And, also according to that article, the owners personally make sure to train people at every new restaurant so they know about Mt. Shasta and the Black Bear’s history.
The next time you see a Black Bear Diner, don’t think it’s just another “evil” chain business. Know that it started out nearly 20 years ago as a humble little diner in a humble little community. Two decades later, that hasn’t changed. And hey, the food is pretty good, the bear theme is fun, and you’ll definitely be full. For that matter, the next time you judge an apparent “chain” business, look into the history first. Maybe it’s doing some good for a little community that didn’t have high-speed Internet until long after most of you.