In A Startup And Cash-Out World, One Silicon Valley Restaurant Keeps It Homespun
Tim Diebert has been a regular at Hobee’s Restaurant in Palo Alto for the past 30 years.
“I believe in good food. They have great food here,” Diebert said.
He’s especially partial to the chorizo scramble with onions, garlic and runny scrambled eggs.
And it’s not just the food that’s kept him coming back to the restaurant for breakfast every day since he retired two years ago. The staff at Hobee’s know Diebert, and he said it’s one of the few places in the area that still has that old familiar feel.
Hobee’s has been owned and operated by the same family since opening in 1974. So he was understandably concerned when he saw a big yellow sign go up in the restaurant’s window in mid-June announcing a change in ownership.
“Then I learned that it was Danny and Camille, and when I learned that they were going to acquire the place, I knew things weren’t going to change,” Diebert said.
Danny and Camille Chijate aren’t part of a big private equity firm or venture capitalists trying to make it big in Silicon Valley. They’ve been working at Hobee’s — Danny in the kitchen and Camille as a waitress and manager — for the past 28 years.
Camille and Danny met while working at a Hobee’s in San Jose, married and grew with the restaurant chain, which has five locations across the Peninsula and South Bay. They were tapped to open a new San Jose location in the late 1990s, and Camille was eventually promoted to the corporate office, while Danny runs the kitchen in Palo Alto.
“This opportunity was amazing for us because it was our lifelong dream to be able to do this,” Camille said.
Keeping it in the Family
Hobee’s was founded by a Hawaii transplant named Paul Taber in 1974. It started as a single hamburger shop in Mountain View but quickly morphed and grew into a popular, quirky, family-run chain.
“Before you knew it, we were throughout Silicon Valley serving the best breakfasts in the area,” said Ed Fike, Paul’s son-in-law and one of the current owners.
Peter Taber — Ed’s husband and Paul’s son — helped his dad run the family business for years. In 2005, Peter passed daily operating duties over to Ed, and this year, after running the restaurant for decades, the family decided they were ready for a change and started preparing to sell the restaurant.
The family looked at a few buyers, but nobody felt right. They didn’t want the new owners to just see Hobee’s as a balance sheet.
“We’ve never wanted to be slick,” Ed said. “It’s just not a slick operation. It’s very homespun.”
Eventually, they turned to Danny and Camille.
“We don’t have heirs, and it couldn’t have gone to our family,” Ed said. “But certainly Camille and Daniel are like our family.”
It wasn’t easy for two restaurant workers to come up with the cash to buy a Silicon Valley restaurant chain. The Chijates used up their life savings, took a loan out against their house and borrowed from friends and family.
They have some plans to modernize the restaurant’s technology and increase the number of locally sourced ingredients it uses, but Camille said the homey vibe that’s defined Hobee’s for decades won’t change.
“We kind of keep one foot really firmly planted in sort of the legacy and the concept of the Hobee’s that people are comfortable with, and that other foot sort of testing the waters of what new things people might be interested in,” Camille said.
‘Mile-High Coffee Cake’
In addition to helping his dad run the restaurant, Peter Taber also created Hobee’s signature item: its blueberry coffee cake.
“Basically it is a mile-high piece of coffee cake with blueberries on the inside,” Camille said, “and our famous streusel topping on top, which our customers always want more of because that’s the best part.”
Part of Camille’s corporate office job is going to the different locations to make sure everything tastes how it’s supposed to, including the coffee cake. She estimates she’s eaten around 2,500 pieces of coffee cake in her time at Hobee’s.
“When I’m at the kids’ high school or soccer games, people are like, ‘Oh, you’re the coffee cake lady.’ This is what we’re known for,” Camille said.
A lot of that coffee cake has been made by Juan Carlos Zaragosa. He’s been working at Hobee’s for 25 years.
He uses a small metal bowl to scoop frozen blueberries out of a box and sprinkles them on the cake batter. Then he takes handfuls of streusel topping and carefully adds it on top, gently spreading it out with a flat hand.
It’s like watching an artist at work. And it makes him happy knowing that people come in just for his coffee cake.
“People come in and they ask, ‘Who’s in the kitchen? Oh Juan Carlos!’ ” he said, a big smile plastered on his face.
Hobee’s is filled with people like Zaragosa who have worked there for decades, and people like Tim Diebert who have been eating there just as long.
“The reason that we’re still successful is because people want a place that’s familiar,” Camille said. “It’s kind of like the old ‘Cheers’ thing. They want to be recognized. They want you know to know their name. They want to know the employees. You know people come in here, and they hug employees.”
And as if on cue, Diebert gets up from his favorite table and gives Camille a hug.