… They also offer variety, community, and hope for mom-and-pops
Each morning, when Ted DeBosier walks into the Gold Rush Café at Skillman and Live Oak, and before he even knows what he wants to eat, someone has poured him a cup of coffee, brought him a glass of water, and put in his order.
Says DeBosier: “I’m always hungry for good conversation and good food, and that’s what I get every morning. You can always feel comfortable there.”
The world may be getting increasingly impersonal, and our lives may be getting equally as frenzied, full of e-mail and TiVo and drive-thru windows, but there are places left where none of that is important.
Go into the 25-year-old Gold Rush — or to any of a handful of the places still left in Lakewood and East Dallas that have been here longer than many residents — and it’s possible to understand why a breakfast joint is one of those things that make a neighborhood a neighborhood.
“I always used to think that not even the food was the most important thing,” says Barry Brown, who ran the legendary Barbec’s on the other side of White Rock Lake for 21 years before selling it in 1999.
“It was the sense of community, and that’s a big deal. We all like that, to walk into a place and be recognized and feel like we belong.”
If this sounds a bit much, if it seems a bit too romantic about places that do nothing more than serve bacon and eggs, remember what was lost when the neighborhood drug store vanished and when the corner gas station was swallowed up.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with progress, and it might be more convenient to pick up a prescription at the grocery store, and it might be quicker to buy gas at the convenience store. But something bad happened when the druggist who knew your family was replaced by a guy who drives in from Garland, and when it no longer made bottom-line sense to have a kid around to clean your windshield.
So here are six reasons why you don’t want your neighborhood breakfast joint to go away:
1. Because they really do know your name
“We’re like the ‘Cheers’ of breakfast places,” says Nancy Lowell, who has owned the Oasis at Greenville and Southwestern for more than six years (while the restaurant itself has been around since at least the early 1980s).
“This isn’t corporate; it’s personal. This is a small-town, mom-and-pop type of restaurant. We know about their families, know about their kids, know about weddings, graduations, whether they’re happy, whether they’re sad. We celebrate with them, and we grieve with them.”
Regulars are the lifeblood of places like these, making up anywhere from three-quarters to 90 percent of the business. Second-generation customers aren’t uncommon, and most of the restaurants that have been around long enough to have third-generation customers, says John Spiros of John’s Café on Greenville near the M Streets, which has been open since 1972. (The breakfast special was $2.75 then, he says with a laugh, and coffee was a quarter).
Why are regulars important? Since neighborhood places are usually family-owned, they don’t have the marketing budgets to run TV ads to attract new customers like their corporate competition. Once you get someone in the door, you have to do whatever you can to keep them there, says Debbie Stogner, who manages Barbec’s for Abe, who bought the business from Brown.
“It’s friendly, it’s homey, and they can come in any way they want,” she says. “If they want to come in in their PJs, they do. And they have.”
2. It’s part of the American Dream
These are not just family places, but family-owned places, often by first-generation immigrants. Spiros had been in the U.S. from Greece only a couple of years when he bought what was then a sandwich shop. His goal, he says, was no different than any other immigrant who has come to this country in the past 230 years — become successful, raise a family, find a home.
At the Gold Rush, seven Sanchez family members work regularly, and there’s a waiting list of assorted younger Sanchezes who want to work there, says George Sanchez, who runs the restaurant for the family (his father, Virgil, is the legal owner).
Equally as important, no one had to attend a franchise expo, send away for information, or deal with corporate higher-ups to start their business. These days, that doesn’t seem to happen very often — and it’s a feeling that’s impossible to overestimate, says Lowell, who has been in the restaurant business most of her adult life.
“I don’t have someone else telling me how to run my business,” she says, “telling me what to put on the menu. It’s my choice, my decision.”
3. They’re not chains
Bob Rubright, who is the breakfast joint expert for the Southern Foodways Alliance, a group in Oxford, Miss., that studies Southern food history, traditions and customs, says it’s possible for a chain restaurant to eventually become a neighborhood icon. But, he notes, they start with a distinct disadvantage — they’re not usually owned by anyone in the neighborhood who knows about the neighborhood and is all that interested in the neighborhood, and where the managers and employees come and go.
This is not as metaphysical as it sounds. George Sanchez sometimes recognizes customers in the grocery store not by their names, but by what they order. There goes a John Wayne, he’ll tell his wife.
And if you pay careful attention to the marketing the chains do, you’ll notice it usually emphasizes the food, be it all-you-can-eat-pancakes or an egg dish with a goofy name. The marketing usually doesn’t talk about the atmosphere or whether the waitresses will know who you are. (Rubright says one mark of a true breakfast joint is that someone knows your name by second or third visit.) Even the chains know their limitations.
4. A chance to eat something you can’t find anywhere else
The most popular breakfast restaurant meal is bacon and eggs. But don’t tell that to the customers who go to Barbec’s for beer batter biscuits, to the Gold Rush for the John Wayne (two eggs served over hash browns served on top of a tortilla, with plenty of grated cheese and pico de gallo), to John’s for the Greek omelet with feta cheese and black olives, or to the Oasis for migas with fresh salsa.
That’s why it’s probably not a coincidence that so many neighborhood places appeal to ethnic sensibilities, whether it’s Mexican or Greek or something else. It’s one thing to get a breakfast burrito at a hamburger chain; it’s something else entirely to get the Greek omelet at Big John’s, where Spiros still sounds like he just got here.
Besides, that’s some of the best marketing the neighborhood breakfast joint can do. It’s something unique to offer customers and helps them carve a niche not served by others, as the marketing consultants put it. Barbec’s biscuits are a good example, having developed a life of their own far outside of the restaurant’s White Rock Lake neighborhood. Do a Google search, and the hits show up as far away as Denver and Chicago.
5. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day
In Alan Rudolph’s cult-film favorite “Trouble in Mind,” Genevieve Bujold plays a diner owner who tells ex-cop Kris Kristofferson why she owns a breakfast joint: “Because the sun is coming up, and the day is just getting starting, and people still have hope.”
The irony is that that sentiment is becoming increasingly less true. Talk to the owners and managers of these places, and they’ll tell you it’s getting harder and harder to make a living from just breakfast customers, especially during the week.
Says Stogner: “It seems like some people have just given up on having breakfast.”
On the weekends, when customers, and particularly younger customers, come in later for brunch and early lunches, business is brisk, and finding a table can be difficult. That helps make up for a lot of the empty tables at 7:30 in the morning on a work day. But can a breakfast place survive only selling breakfast two days a week? No one is quite sure.
Another irony: The good crowds on weekends that help pay for the other five days, Rubright says, probably are part of larger sociological trends: the return of younger adults to urban areas, urban in-fill and even teardowns. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that these trends raises property values in the neighborhoods around the restaurants, which increases rents and makes it that much more difficult to make money.
6. Why they really are an endangered species
It’s not a coincidence that the heyday of the breakfast place probably started ending about the same time McDonald’s started serving breakfast in the early 1980s. Today, if most people eat breakfast out during the week, it’s a muffin and a cup of coffee in the car, a doughnut at work, or something from the drive-thru. Who has time to sit down to read the paper, drink a couple of cups of coffee, and mop up the last bit of egg yolk with some toast?
Hence no more Dan’s Lakewood Café, no more Little Gus’, no more Brownie’s.
But there are other forces at work, as well. Those people who do have time to eat breakfast, including the retired and the elderly, move away and or die. Then there are the complications of small business and family business, whether it’s pockets that aren’t deep, the difficulty in making decisions that everyone has to agree on — particularly in deciding how to deal with the changing business environment — or being too quick to make changes in an attempt to keep up with the changing business environment.
“It’s just harder to compete these days,” says George Sanchez, citing higher rent, increased costs and the changing marketplace.
“We have less margin for error than ever before.”
But, fortunately, some still survive. And the neighborhood would be the worse for it if they didn’t.