If you live in the Fairfax area, you’ve probably been to or at least heard of 29 Diner. It is, after all, a Virginia Historical Landmark that’s been locally owned and operated since 1947.
When you walk in, you’ll probably be struck by the walls—nearly every inch is covered in signs from various community outreach initiatives over the years. You’ll begin to get to know some of the employees after a few visits, as there’s only eleven of them. You’ll likely meet John Wood, owner since 2014. While you enjoy their signature Breakfast Bowl or a cup of coffee, he’ll probably welcome you from behind the counter. “Thank you for dining with us,” he’ll say with sincerity.
But the diner is more than a local eatery—its charitable work is a fixture of the community.
It all started at George Mason University’s School of Business in 1990 when a young John Wood decided that his business plan would always center upon aiding his community.
People said it couldn’t be done. “Everybody said I’m going to be out of business in year one or two. They said John, be careful, you can’t give this away. I said, the more we give away the more we grow. And it worked like an absolute charm.”
At the outset of the pandemic, Wood knew that businesses would close en mass and that families would go hungry because of it, so he sprung into action.
“When the pandemic began, we were in a roundtable with our managers and our other business partners, and we were trying to decide what was the best course of action. I said, I think our mission is pretty clear. We need to take care of our community. We need to put our community first.”
First on his mind were the children of Fairfax County who were reliant upon school lunches. He turned the diner into a free food pantry, where anyone could come and receive food. Since March, 29 Diner has served forty five thousand free meals. Starting at nine hours per week, they were able to expand within weeks to over eighty hours per week.
Any business minded person would ask—how is all this charity work feasible for a profitable business? But 29 Diner has never done better financially.
“We’re more financially secure today, in the middle of a pandemic than we’ve ever been, thanks to this business model,” Wood said. He has the numbers to back it up. In 2019, the diner had $30,000 in cash holdings. Thanks to the support of local churches and citizens, they now have $60,000.
Wood wasn’t done yet. Without ending the Food Pantry program, Wood wanted to do more for healthcare workers. So he set out to create a program entitled “Be a Hero, Feed a Hero”, where community members could call and select a hospital department to pay to feed. By leaning on the diner’s reputation in the community, not one employee was laid off during the pandemic.
In October, a new issue was brought to John’s attention. As the pandemic wages on, the mental and emotional toll has worn onto the people of Fairfax. One such issue is domestic violence.
Partnering with corporate sponsor Home Depot, the diner set out to support Shelter House, an organization which places women and children affected by domestic violence in safe locations. The diner raised over ten thousand dollars and provided over five hundred hot meals to the women and children of Shelter House.
“We put our arms around them,” Wood said. “Imagine the strength and the courage that you would have to find inside of you for a mother to say, I’m taking my children and I’m moving into a shelter. I’m leaving my secure house because of an abuser, and I’m going to put my kids and I into a non-disclosed shelter so I can try to start a new life during a pandemic. How strong are these women? How much of a hero are these women for making this choice?”
While the other initiatives will continue, a new one will begin in February aimed at supporting local police, fire and rescue, and the sheriff’s office. Individuals can nominate exceptional members of each to receive a free $100 gift card.
Wood concluded: “My mission is to change the world. If I’m going to change the world, it’s through inspiration. Inspiring the youth of the community is the biggest reward.”