NORTH KINGSTOWN – All that’s missing at the Quonset Hut Diner is the sound of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” filling the air.
Otherwise, it is a virtual trip back to a World War II USO-style canteen, with low-cost comfort food cooked up in a 2009 Custom Kitchen trailer by an actual veteran.
Laurie Ludwig, 55 and a native of Staten Island, N.Y., served in the U.S. Air Force after earning a degree in education from Wayne College.
“I wanted to teach,” she explains, “but several thousand teachers were laid off that year.”
Not wanting the hassle of commuting to Manhattan via ferry, subway and bus, she enlisted in 1976. She attended tech school in Illinois – “the first year women were trained for B-52 crew chief” assignment – and, by the time she finished, was the top student leader, known as a “red rope.”
She had 400 men under her command.
Today, she has one and he only comes in occasionally when his Johnson & Wales schedules allows. Dominic Hazzard, of North Kingstown, is a volunteer at the Quonset Hut Diner and previously helped a friend run his dad’s food cart.
Mostly, though, it’s a one-woman show with Laurie cooking breakfast for an opening hour of 6 a.m. She offers a “Bomblette” version of an egg-and-cheese sandwich with various add-ons, cereal, grilled muffins, Texas toast, bagels, coffee and juice.
While there are such healthy (and definitely non-authentic war foods) as yogurt with fruit and granola, the menu includes the ever-popular burgers, sausage and peppers, ham-and-cheese, BLT, a variety of cold sandwiches and the “Hut Dog” a Nathan’s Famous frank loaded with cheese, chili, sauerkraut and onions. The faint-hearted can have hot dogs with fewer, more traditional condiments.
Laurie even offers free homemade cookies but “only if you eat all your lunch.”
The diner is located across from the main gate of Electric Boat, in sight of the Martha’s Vineyard Fast Ferry, Toray Plastics and the Quonset Air Museum. While it seems a prime location, the small structure is set back just far enough from the road that motorists often whiz past before noticing it.
Moreover, while she gets some lunch business from EB and tourists leaving the ferry, she’s frustrated by corporate resistance. Even with the Quonset Development Authority on her side, she hasn’t been allowed to display menus in the break rooms of most of the businesses in the industrial park.
“You can come here, breathe the fresh air and get a bite to eat,” she says. “Companies don’t think outside the box. It’s a viable solution to fast food or sandwiches from a machine. I don’t want to make a killing, I just want to pay the bills and, at the moment, I don’t know if I’ll make it.”
She was further thwarted by having to wait two months to open because the parking lot she’s in and a nearby road were torn up for water line installation. Her first weekend in business was for the Quonset Air Show and traffic was so contained there was virtually no stopping either going in or leaving.
“People didn’t know I was here.”
Nonetheless, Laurie believes her concept has merit.
“I like doing something that has meaning to it,” she says of her decision to start a nostalgia-based business in the heart of a vital piece of American military history.
“I thought ‘Look at this location. It was an old Navy base, it has the Air National Guard, the Quonset hut was invented here, the Seabee Museum is here, they’re making nuclear submarines at EB and I’m a veteran. It’s perfect.’
“I don’t mind saying I’m a proud American.”
She also finds preparing and serving food to be spiritually nourishing.
“I like to create things and share in the breaking of the bread. It’s an important part of life.”
It has been a long and fascinating road to Quonset, one that took her around the country with the Air Force, to grad school at Louisiana State University in Lake Charles where she received a master’s in environmental engineering that included going on a trawler to monitor sea life populations after the country began storing oil.
Afterwards, she entered corporate America where she worked until, eventually, she moved to West Warwick with Scott Laboratories, a diagnostic medical supplies manufacturer.
Most of her career involved quality control in the medical and pharmaceuticals industry and she traveled to companies in North Carolina, Texas and, finally, Rhode Island. After Scott was purchased by Pfizer, Laurie was caught up in layoffs and became a private consultant.
To make ends meet, she delivered the Providence Journal for 15 years and did construction and landscaping.
“You do what you gotta do to pay the bills,” she says. “I’m pretty handy. I keep on plugging away.” She hopes to keep going through the winter and expand into standing orders for businesses that want breakfast assortments and sandwich platters for meetings and luncheons.
Laurie is philosophical about the place of her little throw-back diner in the grand scheme of things.
“I personally think we need to get back to more local, less global,” she reflects. “We need to start taking care of each other.”
To learn more about the Quonset Hut Diner, call 654-7488.
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN and can be reached at mgs3dachs@ cox.net.