Mike Dianna figured out early on that he enjoyed seeing people smile and that entertainment is an important part of everyone’s life. This may account for why he opened a Corolla restaurant—Mike Dianna’s Grill Room—and is at the core of the reason that he has promoted the Mustang Music Festivals for the last five years.
His passion for hospitality came before he left his hometown in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “In high school I worked in a Friendly’s Restaurant every summer,” he recalled. “I liked the social atmosphere of it. I liked seeing a smile on someone’s face. I liked the fast pace of it I liked the unpredictability of it. I still do today.”
He did go to college, graduating from Indiana University of Pennsylvania with a degree in Information Management—which is probably a shock for anyone who knows him. Mike is not a work-in-a-cubicle kind of guy.
It was the same thought that seems to have gone through Mike’s mind as well when he started spending time seasonally on the Outer Banks. “I spent a summer down here in ’95. I worked at Pizza Hut then I worked at Shuckers Pub,” he said, and he knew he liked working in restaurants way than information management. “It’s the complete opposite of writing code. There are lots of monotonous tasks (in restaurants). I mean, cleaning 200 pounds of fish gets monotonous,” he explained.
When he returned to the Outer Banks a career in restaurant management began to grow. He helped open JK’s and Nor’Banks Restaurants in Corolla, eventually owning the Corolla JK’s which would later become Mike Dianna’s Grill Room. Along the way he became partners in Lucky 12 Restaurant on the Beach Road in Nags Head.
The type of restaurants Mike was managing seem a far cry from the family-oriented ice cream shop of his first job, but he notes there are significant parallels. “Friendly’s was a full service restaurant,” he said. “Granted the cuisine is very different, but the whole basis for it is the same. People are coming there for nourishment, they’re coming for entertainment, they’re coming for relaxation. There are a lot of similarities.”
When he sold his portion of Lucky 12, the concept for the Mustang Music Festival began to take shape. “The festival thing happened after I sold my share in Lucky 12 Tavern in 2011. I knew I needed another project to do,” he said. “I had been doing music up there (in Corolla) on the deck – local bands – so I already had some connections.” “I’ve always loved live music,” he went on to say. “My favorite activities are the same now as when I got out of college 20 years ago. Golf, fishing, and listening to live music. I needed something to do in the winter and that void was filled by planning these festivals.” The proceeds from the events go back to local groups. The name for the festival—Mustang Music—comes from the first organization Mike partnered with.
“When we did the first festival I wanted to find a charity that was very local. I really felt after looking at a bunch of different options that the Corolla Wild Horse Fund (CWHF) was the one that really hit home for me. One, I’m a big horse fan and two, they’re good for business here,” he says.
The festivals have gotten bigger every year, a point Mike is proud to make. “I can’t believe the way it’s grown, especially the fall festival. We had over 2200 people last year and we’re hoping for over 3000 to 3500 people this year. We’re really taking it to another level, “ he says. As the festivals have grown, so has the money he is able to give.
Now, there are two groups who receive funding: The CWHF and the Mustang Music Outreach Program. The Outreach Program, headed by local musician Ruth Wyand, works with kids who want to learn music and how to perform. Mustang Outreach kids have taken the Mustang stage for the past three years, and the improvement as they go from novice performers to polished musicians has been astonishing. The cycle is continuing with new young kids joining Mustang Outreach and learning their chops. The 2016 Spring Mustang Music Jam crop of new kids was especially important for Mike. “Seeing my own kids up there. it was really hard not to start balling my eyes out,” Mike says. “I was watching Marina up there singing her eyes out. Michael doing his kicks he does when he plays the bass. It was very gratifying seeing them up there playing their first gig.”
The future is a little up in the air for Mike. He has some ideas about restaurants, but the concept of music festivals has really captured his imagination, even if he’s not getting rich off it. “I’ve never made a dime on any of these projects I’ve done,” he said. “All the proceeds go back to our charities. Eventually I want to make some money on it. I would like to make this the main focus of my career.” And that is, perhaps, where his future lies. “I’m passionate about it and I really enjoy doing it. When you’re doing things you’re really passionate about it and your heart is in it, that’s when you’ll have your best success,” he believes.