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Published: Friday, July 23, 2010
Page: 1C

Those who haven't been through downtown White Sulphur Springs in the past few months - or even the past few weeks - might be amazed at the facelift the town has received.

Local residents hope Jim Justice's increased investment in The Greenbrier and next week's Greenbrier Classic will spur others to invest in the picturesque village. In some cases, that's already happened.

Former car salesman-turned-restaurateur John Songer is one of those people.

Songer recently purchased and renovated a landmark restaurant along Main Street he's calling Diner on the Green.

Songer, 59, grew up in Charleston before leaving for Maryland when he was 17. He worked at managing car dealerships in several states including Virginia and Maryland for 35 years.

In January he visited his mother, who lives in White Sulphur Springs, and that trip inspired his move into the restaurant business.

While there, he started talking to a cousin who works for the city and told him about the community buzz surrounding the Greenbrier Classic and the opening of the Casino Club as the historic resort.

After hearing about what Justice was doing, Songer said he saw an opportunity in investing in one of the closed shops downtown.

"If I was ever thinking about getting out of the car business and into this business, now would be the time," he said. "I was very glad to get back to the country and away from the beltways of D.C. and Virginia."

With that in mind, Songer tapped into his retirement account, purchased the Diner on the Green and began pouring an additional $20,000 in renovations into the shop.

"This is my 401k," he said.

He wanted to restore the shop to its original luster as a classic 50s-style diner, yet retain elements of the rich golf history surrounding White Sulphur Springs.

Songer peeled through six layers of flooring to get back to the original black-and-white- checkered tile floor. He has restored all of the vintage equipment, including the chrome coolers and grill, and brought the chrome cabinet edges back to their original shine.

While he installed completely new plumbing and electrical lines, original elements like the gas pipe that doubles as a footrest for those sitting on the red, rotating bar stools remain.

Well, all but one of those bar stools is red.

At the end of the bar sits the green-covered seat upon which golf legend Sam Snead used to sit and eat his breakfasts before hitting the links at the Old White golf course down the street.

As for the food, Songer and his wife, Valerie, who does a good portion of the cooking, aimed to make sure everything had a homemade feel complete with quality ingredients.

"I use the real stuff, not the stuff bought in the stores," he said.

That includes getting his foot-long kosher beef hotdogs, for which his wife makes the chili and slaw, from upstate New York. The black angus beef for hamburger comes from a farm in Pennsylvania.

The chocolate chip cookies and triple-chocolate cakes are homemade and on display in glass dishes.

One of the specials at the restaurant is Songer's Big "D" burger. It includes a half-pound hamburger patty topped with shaved ham, cheese (either provolone or American), lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, and a spicy special sauce served on a 6-inch bun.

The special sauce is a secret recipe invented by Songer. He would say only that one of his ingredients is Old Bay seasoning.

Songer opened the restaurant full-time on July 3 and already has started attracting a regular crowd of customers.

White Sulphur Springs resident Dick Thomas, 74, is one of those. When asked what his favorite dish was, Thomas replied, "All of it."

He usually gets the chili dogs or homemade lasagna when it's available.

For those who might like a little golf history with their meal, Songer recommended coming in on a Wednesday or Thursday. That's when Mary Fogus works.

Fogus worked at the diner for 47 years before Songer purchased it. She used to wait on Sam Snead and can tell customers what it was like working for them while they're waiting on their Philly Cheese Steak to come off the grill.

The diner usually is open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday but will stay open until at least 9 p.m. during the next week's golf tournament.

To capitalize on the tournament crowd, Songer plans to set up a grill along the street outside the shop to prepare box lunches. His wife will man the grill inside for those who choose to sit at the counter.

He thinks the Greenbrier Classic will provide a big boost to the restaurant, and he hopes to keep up with the business.

"I know it's going to be crazy, but that's a good thing," he said. "I love it. It's definitely going to be a big plus. It's going to make us or break us, and I think it'll make us."

John Songer stands at the end of the counter in his renovated Diner on the Green restaurant near the signature green stool, which marks golf legend Sam Sneadís regular spot at the bar. Snead used to come in and eat breakfast at the restaurant. Songer hopes the upcoming Greenbrier Classic golf tournament will be a boost for his new business.

Crews put the finishing touches on new striping for the freshly paved road in downtown White Sulphur Springs. The town has gotten a facelift as part of preparations for the Greenbrier Classic next week.

The Diner on the Green in downtown White Sulphur Springs reopened July 3 after new owner John Songer funneled his retirement funds into renovations to the downtown landmark. Songer will man a grill on the sidewalk in front of the diner and allow people to place box lunch orders during the Greenbrier Classic tournament next week.

Contact writer Jared Hunt at or 304-348-5148.

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