John Wood isn’t used to being the one in need. Through 29 Diner, the historic Fairfax greasy spoon he’s owned since 2014, he’s raised $300,000 through his “Be a Hero, Feed a Hero” program, half of which goes to suicide-prevention and mental health initiatives, and since the pandemic started he’s given away more than 300,000 meals and turned the 49-seat restaurant into a food pantry.
Then a fire destroyed the kitchen.
“In five hours, it was taken away from everybody here in the community. Everything good that we were doing was taken away,” said Wood, 53. But “if you think it’s a story about the diner, it’s not. It’s the light that rises from the ashes.”
The morning after the November 23, 2021, fire, which happened just as Wood’s “Season of Giving” was kicking off, as his team was preparing Thanksgiving meals to distribute to eight local domestic violence shelters and 46 families of service-disabled veterans, Maj. Donald Wilson of the Salvation Army Fairfax pulled up in the diner’s parking lot with a 32-foot mobile canteen to help continue the food preparation.
“We delivered all of our promises for the Season of Giving,” said Wood, a Fairfax native and George Mason University School of Business alum. Plus, a local teacher set up a GoFundMe campaign to help the helper. It raised about $73,000 in two months.
On May 5, Wood announced on the diner’s Facebook page that it will reopen on October 10, bringing back the thick slices of applewood-smoked bacon, milkshakes, and Texas-style barbecue patrons know and love. The look of the new diner will be a throwback to its 1947 opening, with restored booths, lights, and fixtures, but a fully modern, open kitchen that’s also environmentally friendly. For instance, he’s working to create a self-sufficient battery backup powered by Tesla solar panels that will allow the diner to go off the electric grid and work only from the battery for extended periods.
“It’s going to be cutting-edge. It’s going to be very uniquely the future here at the Virginia Historic Landmark, 29 Diner,” he said. The Virginia Board of Historic Resources registered the restaurant as a Virginia Historic Landmark in 1992, when it was called Tastee 29 Diner. Wood is the diner’s seventh owner.
He’s taking away two seats to ensure wheelchair accessibility and hoping to get county approval to add outdoor seating behind the building. Employees will get living wages, and health care and education benefits, he added.
The son of a firefighter and a chief of staff for former Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), Wood said in a 2020 Competitive Enterprise Institute documentary on the diner that he feels public service is in his blood. On the diner’s “About” webpage, he wrote, “We thrive on doing what we can to support great people and great causes. From local elementary schools and sports teams to the U.S. military and veterans across the country, we are eager to share our support through fundraisers and by our actions.”
One of those actions is supporting the Feeding Fairfax 5k, happening May 14 in Chantilly. “The goal is to pack more than 50,000 free meals for our community at this event,” whose proceeds go to programs supporting Food For Others, a local food bank, Wood said.
He also provides five $1,000 scholarships to students in GMU’s Junior ROTC program, and each year he brings a free barbecue buffet to six to 10 high school homecoming events, where he also advocates against bullying. The diner also fundraises for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the Eric Monday Foundation, the ConnorStrong Foundation, and other causes.
In the diner, Wood has jars inviting people to donate to his Be a Hero Feed a Hero campaign. He used money from that to feed residents at nine orphanages in Vietnam last month and is preparing to kick off on May 25 a 10-week effort to feed Ukrainian refugees in Krakow, Poland.
He won’t be there the whole time, however. He’s still got plenty to do to here, including preparing to reopen.
“From the fire arises a kitchen that will be literally serving 1 million meals free every year. We’ll be tracking that,” Wood said.
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