A couple of times a month, Meg Henderson meets a group of neighborhood women for breakfast at Sweet Temptations at Skillman and Abrams. And a couple of times a month, she appreciates that there is somewhere in the neighborhood to do that.
“I grew up in a little town where everyone knew you,” says Henderson, who eats with two groups of mothers with children in the same grade in Lake Highlands schools. “And we get the same feeling there. When you walk in, they know your name, they know what you always get. You’re actually a name and a face to them.”
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 Sweet Temptations, which also serves lunch and dinner – or to any of handful of the places still left in Lake Highlands – 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 don’t do anything more than serve bacon and eggs, remember that was lost when the neighborhood drug store vanished and 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 quicker to buy gas at the convenience store. But something unfortunate 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
“I like to think I’m the grandson of everyone who comes in here,” says Rito Fuentes, who owned the since-closed Rito’s and now owns the Divine Coffee Shop across the street at Northlake Shopping Center.
“We want to share a smile and treat them the best I can. This is a family place, not just because we serve families, but because of the family atmosphere.”
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 have third-generation customers, says Hubert Winnubst, whose family has owned Henk’s European Deli near Northwest Highway and Central since 1991.
Why are regulars important? Because, 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.
“It’s friendly, it’s homey, and they can come in any way they want,” she says. “If they want to come 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. Young Kwon, the owner of Bee Gee’s at Forest and Greenville (which caters to neighborhood regulars as well as Texas Instruments employers), is an Asian immigrant who bought the restaurant in 2000. Fuentes says one reason for the appeal of breakfast places to immigrants such as him is that it’s a uniquely American institution serving a uniquely American menu.
“Americans don’t eat menudo or barbacoa, and I wanted to find a way to feed Americans,” he says. “What’s more American than pancakes?”
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 many restaurant owners.
“All you have to worry about is what the customer wants,” Fuentes says.
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 says, chains 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. If you pay careful attention to the marketing 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 chain maketing 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 the beer batter biscuits, to the Divine for Florentine omelet (spinach, bacon, tomatoes, Swiss cheese), or to Sweet Temptations for the pastries.
That’s why it’s probably not a coincidence that so many neighborhood places appeal to ethnic sensibilities, whether it’s Texas country or Tex-Mex. It’s one thing to get a breakfast burrito at a hamburger chain; it’s something else entirely to get eggs with Polish sausage or smoked pork loin at Henk’s.
Besides, that’s some of the best marketing the neighborhood breakfast joint can do. It gives them something unique to offer customers and helps them carve out 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 Winnubst: “Eating habits have changed. Everyone is on the run, and it doesn’t seem that anyone has the time to stop in for breakfast before work. They’d just as soon stop at McDonald’s.”
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 ot the empty tables at 7:30 in the morning on a work day. But can a breakfast place survive on 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, are probably 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 raise 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 that 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?
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.
But it’s worth making the effort, despite the obstacles.
“It’s very important to have a local place where we can do this,” Henderson says. “If we had to drive 30 minutes somewhere, it wouldn’t be the same thing.”
It wouldn’t be a neighborhood breakfast place.