Photographs by Jim Graham
Dressed in his chef’s whites, Tom Hannum walks into his new restaurant. It’s Fall 2019, and at the moment, the place is nothing more than wooden stakes and a few chalk marks on the bare earth of a fenced-in lot behind Dunkin’ Donuts on Wilmington’s Pennsylvania Avenue. “This is the vestibule,” says Hannum as he makes his way between the stakes. “Over there, to the right, will be a pastry stand and probably self-service coffee. To the left will be the reception desk. At the far ends, on either side, will be the stairways.”
Stairs weren’t part of the original plan. But then, nothing has gone completely as planned for Goober’s Diner, the worst kept secret among local foodies in recent memory. Great roadside eateries may be known for their efficient service, but Hannum and partner Vance Kershner are discovering that the process of opening one can be as slow as ketchup oozing from an almost empty bottle.
The wheels for Goober’s were set in motion a few years after Hannum and local entrepreneurs Kershner and Coley duPont re-opened Greenville, Del.’s iconic Buckley’s Tavern in 2012. There, Hannum—who still has a following from his days as head chef at the Hotel du Pont—proved that he could make the switch from haute cuisine to au confort specialties. Kershner came up with the idea for a diner-type concept, with him as the sole owner and Hannum running the show.
Kershner likes to keep multiple pots boiling. In addition to his hospitality interests, he’s founder of the lab automation solution company LabWare. He also restored Wilmington’s Oberod estate, owns a game farm in South Africa, and is a partner in Scrub Island Resort in the British Virgin Islands. When Goober’s finally opens, it will accommodate 80-90 patrons on its two floors, and a seat at the downstairs lunch counter will offer a view of the kitchen. Breakfast will be available all day, with dinner Tuesday-Saturday. “The breakfast theme is very important to me,” Kershner says. “I made a trip to Chicago with [Hannum], where we sampled specific vendors’ products.”
Also expect an outside window at Goober’s for walkup service. The menu will be comfort food—more specifically, “mushroom soup, mac and cheese, Reubens, meatloaf, chicken potpie, many of the same things we serve at Buckley’s,” says Hannum.
There will be beer, wine and cocktails, but bar service will be a scaled-down version of what you find at Buckley’s.
Naturally, Goober’s will also have milkshakes, along with red leather seats,
black-and-white floor tiles and other diner décor. Alas, there won’t be a jukebox—and no bobby socks or poodle skirts for the wait staff.
Adjacent to and opposite the diner, two connected brick buildings house Kershner’s extensive classic automobile collection. It won’t be visible (or accessible) to the dining public, except possibly for special events. Overhead, a red, white and blue neon sign will flash “Eat at Goober’s” into the Wilmington evening.
After the bare-earth tour is over, Tom Hannum is back at Buckley’s. “Everyone’s been asking me, ‘When
is Goober’s going to open?’”
This past fall, the plan was to open on Feb. 1. But a check of the site just before Christmas revealed a muddy lot and still no sign of a diner’s trademark stainless-steel cocoon. The date was bumped to July, and now Goober’s is set to open in October.
Hannum notes Kershner’s long-held fascination with roadside diners, which is understandable given his passion for classic cars. He’s even incorporated a diner motif at his house in the Poconos. “Diners are like going back in time,” says Kershner. “Goober’s comes from the fictional character Goober Pyle on the TV sitcom The Andy Griffith Show. The name, to me, is reminiscent of simpler and happy times.”