For some, working at Baby’s Burgers and Shakes in downtown State College was a job that made ends meet in college.
For one person, the diner was where she would meet her future husband for their first date.
Baby’s was a State College staple since 1987, until the coronavirus pandemic forced the owners of the restaurant to close the doors for good.
It was sold in the early 2010s, according to operations manager for Hotel State College Curtis Shuhlman, to Fred and Denise Wood — who operated the building for the last 10 years until the onset of the pandemic.
Hotel State College leases several properties in the State College area including Bill Pickle’s Tap Room, Chumley’s Cocktail Bar, The Corner Room, Allen Street Grill, The Basement Nightspot, Zeno’s Pub — and Baby’s.
According to Michael Sleeth, a downtown realtor who has worked with Denise, potential buyers are currently viewing the property in the hope of rejuvenating the once-adored spot, he said.
The diner was well-known for its signature meal — a chicken basket with french fries and a milkshake — Jeri Daniels-Elder said, former assistant track and field coach and current administrative support for university programs at Penn State.
“Let's go back to the last century, to March 17, 1988,” Elder said, laughing about her first memory of Baby’s — her first date with her future husband.
“Baby’s holds a warm spot in my heart because that's where I met my one and only,” she said.
That was the first of many dinners at Baby’s for Elder, who used to take potential Penn State track and field recruits to the spot as well for meals.
“Burgers, fries, milkshakes — any teenage kid would think that was great,” Elder said.
And there was no inclination to ever stop going to Baby’s after she and her husband had settled down in State College.
“Kids eat free on Tuesdays,” she said. “You get two sliders and a basket of fries and a milkshake, for free.”
However, there was additional appeal to Baby’s, which went past the food, according to Elder.
It was the experience of sitting in a 1950s themed diner with jukeboxes and costumed wait staff that made Baby’s so special, Elder said.
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“We would sit at the counter with our little kids, and we would watch [soda jerks] make the milkshakes, and [our kids] thought that was the coolest thing,” she said.
Soda jerks were what customers would traditionally call the employees operating the milkshake and fountain soda machine in the center of the diner, according to Elder.
The Elder family’s excursions to Baby’s became less and less frequent, in part because of youth athletics.
But Baby’s never faded from their memories, and by the time her kids could drive, the diner once again surged to the top of everyone’s list of places to go with their friends, Elder said.
Jillann Kuegler, who graduated from Penn State in 1988, was part of the inaugural wait staff that made Elder and so many others’ experiences memorable at Baby’s.
“In my mind, I never considered Baby’s to be a diner — it was that special to me” Kuegler said.
Kuegler lived in South Halls throughout her four years at Penn State, and she said one day she walked into McLanahan's downtown — only to determine she was dangerously low on cash.
“I had 10 dollars left, and I can’t ask my dad for money, and right next to McLanahans, Baby’s was under construction, so I went in and filled out an application,” Kuegler said. “There was this older group, and I think the head waitress was dating the owner, but they hired us all.”
Kuegler and her friends immediately became part of the Baby’s family, which she said she remembers vividly.
The wait staff all had to buy saddle shoes, hair necessities and costumes necessary to bring Baby’s diner and its 1950s theme to life, she said.
“We had a black skirt, and they wanted us to ‘gig it up,’ with bubble gum,” she said of the show-like atmosphere in Baby’s.
But the work was easy, the people were calm and the money was great, Kuegler remembered.
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And of course, the soda jerks in the middle of the diner stole the show, Kuegler said, just as they had for Elder and her kids.
“The soda jerks would do their thing, and everyone would watch them in their costumes,” Kuegler said.
It was the perfect situation — Kuegler worked the busy lunch and dinner shifts, leaving by 9 p.m. with around $70 dollars each day, she said.
“I remember at first just trying to get by, but then with that group, everyone was fun, and there was always craziness, and those were my memories,” Kuegler said.
However, both Elder and Kuegler said they noticed over time, the vibe at Baby’s changed.
On Elder’s occasional visits back to the diner and the greater downtown State College area, Baby’s began to become more like a business and less like an “experience,” she said.
Student Olivia Wilson, on a visit to State College with her parents to tour Penn State in 2017, walked into the diner with the hope of feeling the magic her parents — both Penn State alumni — felt two decades earlier.
“I felt like I was in any old diner back home, and all my parents could talk about was how much the place had changed since they had eaten there,” Wilson (sophomore-industrial engineering) said.
“All my friends and I have been looking for a diner since we got here, and Baby’s was always something that would have been able to check that box, but not anymore,” Wilson said after she decided to attend Penn State.
For Elder and Kuegler, their last Baby’s experience is one they treasure.
“Baby’s, that’s my memory, and it's not there any more, and it just makes me sad,” Kuegler said. “When I think of my lasting memories though, it brings a smile to my face — I think of this brand new shiny diner.”
For Elder, Baby’s brings back memories of time spent with her family at the place where it all began, with the end-of-meal bubblegum that was passed around, she said.
“Baby’s is everything.”
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