Stories From the City: The First-Year Surprise of Sunrise Diner

This post is part of the Stories From the City series.

During their first year at Burning Man, Nathan McKinley (a.k.a “Oncall”) and Zella Henderson (a.k.a. “Lifesaver”) would wake to mimosas as far as the eye could see. Every morning, they would adventure around their neighborhood hoping to find something to eat, but only found sparkling beverages and quiet streets.

(Photo by Mark Mennie)

“We were unplaced, we were virgins and we ended up on 9:45 and J or K, and there’s nothing there in the morning except mimosas,” remembers Zella. “And we were like: ‘I really want to get up and have something hot to eat and there’s no breakfast out here at all.’”

The couple and their small Seattle-based camp of friends had already spent their first Burn dipping their toes into some participatory activities, but their search for food sowed the seed for something much bigger.

“The first year we came out, we did a couple of community participation things. We delivered mail, somebody was a lamplighter,” says Nathan, also pointing to some art that their campmate Borzoi brought and which they helped set up in their camp.

Zella adds: “We tried to be involved but we really came out of the event feeling we could do more. And the thing that I really wished was there was hot breakfast in the morning, and we thought, ‘Great, let’s do it.”

She says a ‘50s diner felt like an easy theme for their food idea. They could play some music, make some cute little diner uniforms with the circle skirts and serve hot breakfast sandwiches and coffees.

And so the concept of the Sunrise Diner was born.

(Photo by Mark Mennie)

Up for the Challenge

Both Zella and Nathan like challenges, and establishing a theme camp that would feed their neighborhood during their second year at Burning Man was a perfect fit for them. “The thing about Burning Man that draws me in is that it Is really freaking hard,” says Nathan.

They assembled a crew of eight people and “hit the ground running” in their first year as a placed theme camp on the 3 o’clock and B plaza. They built a 1950’s vintage diner in the front of their camp, and put out a sign announcing hot breakfast sandwiches and coffee starting at 9:00 am. They were surprised when a line started forming well before their opening time.

Sasha and Dana shut up shop. (Photo by Mark Mennie)

“It was crazy,” Nathan says. “People were coming by, saw the line, jumped in the line, even if they hadn’t seen us in the book. So we just had soooo many people — more than we expected.”

They had to quickly abandon their original plan of having one person cooking and two people delivering coffee to the tables. “People sitting down at tables — we would have served 27 people at a time!” exclaims Nathan as he remembers their initial over-optimistic plans and the 200 people they ended up serving in an hour.

“Every single person in the camp needed to be working to keep the diner running because we didn’t expect the line,” Zella remembers of that first morning. “Ok, this is not what we expected but everybody up, put on your diner uniforms, let’s get going.”

(Photo by Mark Mennie)

At the end of every shift over the next few days, the crew was hot, dusty, covered with grease, but very happy. “We were thrilled to do it,” Zella says.

That first year, the Sunrise Diner served almost 2,000 breakfast sandwiches — a quantity they had thankfully catered for, even if they didn’t expect it. Before arriving on playa, they had doubled their initial quantity of food after learning they would be placed on the 3 o’clock plaza

“Before the Burn we thought we were going to have to take so much stuff home. But we gave out every last bit of food that we brought. I think we ran out of sausages and gave out just english muffins at one point,” Zella says.

Preparation Proves Key to Success

But while the line and demand for their food may have taken them by surprise, Nathan and Zella had still undertaken some serious preparations that enabled them to roll with the punches. They had purchased restaurant equipment such as heavy duty cast iron grills, and they had got a restaurant licence so they could buy from a restaurant supplier.

Muchos muffins. (Photo by Mark Mennie)

“If we had showed up with a couple of camp stoves hoping to serve a sandwich like every 20 minutes, there’s no way,” Zella says. “We were prepared because we were planning for the future. We had purchased this equipment as if we were going to run this bigger camp later.”

Since that first year, the Sunrise Diner crew has had to improvise many times to keep their kitchen functional. For example, the commercial coffee makers they brought in their first year were not up to the challenge of serving so many people.

In their second year, they supplemented them with eight propane coffeemakers to keep up with demand — but kept the old electric machines as backup.The harsh environment almost immediately broke every single one of the propane coffeemakers. One of them exploded! By repairing what they could and using their backups, they were able to serve most Burners coffee that year.

Alex and the camp’s arsenal of caffeine. (Photo by Mark Mennie)

In 2018, their third year, the Sunrise Diner came with a hardened industrial coffeemaker, brought their old electrics as back-up, added cold brew as further back-up, and kept instant coffee as a last-resort plan D. They also brought a backup generator in case their solar grid fails, and a backup backup generator in case the first one broke down.

That same year, the crew grew to 17 members and they served more than 3,000 grilled sandwich and coffee breakfasts. To pull off this amazing feat, they have also continued to build on their impressive collection of cooking equipment.

Back Up, Back Up, Back Up

Their experience on the playa has shown that careful planning, and developing multiple back-up plans for key components of their operation is essential. As many Burners have learned the hard way, equipment that works at home, may not work as well in the Black Rock Desert. Electrical systems may fail, mechanical systems may break, and the demand for some supplies may exceed planned quantities.

Of course, there are always other unexpected problems. As Nathan says, “It’s a Burning Man thing, something always happens that is out of our control.”

Thomas, Jason and no more jo. (Photo by Mark Mennie)

They have found that bringing extra supplies (e.g., shade cloth, poles, electrical cords, nuts and bolts, bailing wire, etc.), and extra tools makes it much easier to improvise solutions when the unexpected arises. Illustrating the importance they place on preparation for the unexpected, their camp planning includes thinking about “error budgets” — how many of these things can be allowed to fail before it impacts the quality of their service?

As the camp has grown, they also found it important to carefully interview potential new members. “We select and recruit people who love giving out food…and making people smile,” Zella says.

As a labor-intensive camp, they make a special effort to acculturate new members to the camp’s work ethic and to Burning Man in general. To this end, they start holding planning meetings in April, with a focus on acculturating new camp members and fine-tuning plans for every aspect of their camp’s activities.

The Sunrise Diner crew has shown that a small theme camp can make a big contribution to Black Rock City. Many Burners who were having a slow start in the morning, and some who are just getting back from an all-night dance party, have been grateful for the love and hot breakfast they received at the Diner.

The Sunrise Diner will return to Black Rock City in 2019 with plans to serve 4,000 breakfast sandwiches and even more coffee.

Top photo: Sunrise Diner crew (Photo by Mark Mennie). Thank you to Miranda Von Stockhausen (a.k.a Pono) for conducting this interview with Nathan McKinley (a.k.a “Oncall”) and Zella Henderson (a.k.a. “Lifesaver”). 

About the author: Victor Stevens

Victor Stevens

Captain Vic made his first trip to Black Rock City in 2002, and has attended every year since then. He has been the leader of the Children of Chaos theme camp since 2003. Over the years, the Children of Chaos has hosted a number of performance art events, costume parades, mutant vehicles, and a conversation bar. This camp includes members ranging in age from their 20s to their 80s, and includes members from a dozen countries. Captain Vic has been a member of the Camp Support Council since January, 2019.

9 Comments on “Stories From the City: The First-Year Surprise of Sunrise Diner

  • rubymermaid says:

    What a fantastic camp! So few members to provide so much too! We use to be in the breakfast game serving pancakes but our camp size was much larger. Kudos to you! I’ll be looking for that awning this year!

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  • Miranda says:

    Hooray for the good people of Sunrise Diner!What an inspiration you are, and so glad your story is being told. Big thanks to Victor for crafting such a lovely story!

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  • Congratulations on this fabulous achievement! The Sunrise Diner crew is a perfect team, and it’s for sure. Any challenge requires serious preparations (and not only from the physical point, of course). Inspiration and mindfulness are the key points here as well.
    Grant Wilson

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  • Before the Burn we thought we were going to have to take so much stuff home. But we gave out every last bit of food that we brought.

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  • Wyogirl says:

    Great example of identifying a need and developing your own niche. I think some potential camps see only the big gifts to the playa and get discouraged before they start. We need the smaller theme gifts as well as the big, flashy theme gifts. Especially now – back to our organic roots! Congratulations

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  • Parrot says:

    As someone who does a Stone Soup meal (25 gallons, enough for 250 people), there is a satisfaction in watching so many enjoy what you put so much effort into cooking.
    I never remember to bring enough crackers…

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  • esti says:

    i was so grateful for the diner last year. visiting the diner became part of my morning neighbourhood routine and was a big part of my burn. I’m really glad you guys are coming back

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  • Martha says:

    You guys are the best!!! Love the smiles, uniforms and of course the sandwiches. So happy to see y’all back in the 3:00 zone!!
    Huge credit to your hard work for growing so fast!!!

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  • TouchyTaj says:

    I rarely want to wait in line for anything at Burning Man (since many gifts are a bite or two of something not worth my time) but this ONE time I really wanted a breakfast sandwich and I only waited 40 mins and received a large fresh delicious breakfast sandwich! Heaven on Playa!!!

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