The Knife & Fork:
It's the Coffee Shop Version of 'Cheers'
At Roberta’s Village Inn in Old Town La Verne, everybody knows your name.
"That’s Henry. That’s Gil. That’s Bob, Joe and Harry. And that’s Sam. He has the two eggs scrambled with wheat toast and mixed berries jelly. He has his eggs sunny-side-up and French toast on the weekends. He has hot chocolate. He has the coffee with two sugars, no cream. He has the eggs and hash browns and the steak and eggs on Saturdays. He has five meals to choose from, we call them one, two, three, four and five. He just says a number and we make it.”
Waitress Keri Veylupek knows her customers. Everyone is a regular. Like the old TV show “Cheers,” it’s where everybody knows your name, and even your breakfast habits.
Roberta Virgin bought La Verne’s Village Inn seven years ago and changed the name to Roberta’s Village Inn. The Village Inn had been around since 1969, but before that, it was a Chinese restaurant that opened in 1949. Before the Chinese restaurant was there, it was the town’s main meat market.
Before Roberta bought the Village Inn, she was a waitress and then a manager of the restaurant. What made her want to become an entrepreneur? The owner of the Village Inn was retiring and she still needed a job. Pretty good reason.
Roberta doesn’t come from La Verne, but for three decades, she has made a home at the Village Inn.
“I didn’t grow up in this town, but I grew up in this restaurant.”
That is the same sentiment that I come across in talking to my waitress, Keri. We talk as if we are two old friends catching up. Maybe it’s the atmosphere or the scrumptious ham-and-egg omelet I just devoured, but I feel really comfortable here. Roberta’s has that undeniable hometown feel. Keri and the other waitresses treat their customers like family. I feel at home here, even though this is only my first visit.
Keri was born in the Midwest, and her family would move every two years, making it difficult to find a real home or find stability and friends. She had been in California for two years when she got her waitressing job at Roberta’s.
“It’s the first time I really had a home. It’s the hub of the community. The Chamber of Commerce meets here. The Rotary Club meets here. It’s our Mayberry. I am happy every day here. You can’t put a price on that. I love what I do.”
It’s not every day that you find a person with such a passion for their job. There must be something in the French toast here at Roberta’s, because no one ever wants to leave.
There are a few main waitresses at Roberta’s. At the time of my visit, there was Mona, who’s been there for 10 years, and Alice, who’s been there for seven. It obviously has very low turnover, and it’s an environment that everyone clings to, from the customers to the waitresses.
I asked a waitress if there was a customer—a regular—who would be willing to let me sit down with them for a chat. She looked around and sent me straight to Mrs. E, who was sipping coffee in a lone booth—a rarity, because she comes to Roberta’s almost everyday with her family. But today she was alone.
Mrs. E has lived in La Verne for 45 years and has been coming to Roberta’s for 35. She tells me that, after a while, it becomes family, and that’s why she chooses Roberta’s—for the people.
“The girls are very efficient, very friendly. They just take care of you. People can go anywhere to have a meal. They come here because they want the service. They cater to you here.”
The regulars are the staple of Roberta’s business. Keri tells me that 85 percent of their customers are regulars, most of whom come in every day. They easily become a big extended family, people who genuinely care for each other. It’s not hard to start loving Roberta’s after sharing a delicious meal with them seven days a week.
Keri mentions that there are a few elderly people who often come to Roberta’s, and if they don’t come in for a few days, she will give them a ring to make sure all is well.
There is always something happening in Roberta’s. They should really consider charging admission because for the price of a cup of coffee, you can have all the entertainment in the world listening to the priceless conversations between the gentlemen at the coffee bar or the friendly banter of the waitresses and their customers, or rather, of friend and friend.
Roberta has been here for 30 years. What keeps her here are the people. It’s her comfort zone.
“There are people I’ve known since my first day here. Some have come and gone. But there are still a few that have been here since the beginning.”
The restaurant fits perfectly in its downtown setting. It remains old-fashioned, taking cash only, and serving only the best comfort foods. That is what Roberta takes pride in and she’s not about to change it any time soon. Roberta’s is a home for many people. The everyday patrons attend as if attending church.
The same few seats are worn, as the same people occupy them day in and day out. When the waitresses are prepping the restaurant before opening their doors at 7 a.m., they know not to just put silverware at every table, or refill the salt, sugar and pepper shakers, they also place waters at these reserved seats for their regulars.
Roberta remarks that these regulars can get quite feisty if they don’t get their regular seat. Perhaps these regulars have earned their seats. They are just as much a part of Roberta’s as their delicious ham-and-egg omelets, their crispy and tender French toast and their friendly service.
In talking with Roberta, you can sense her pride in the restaurant. She is a part of its history and it is a part of hers, but it doesn’t stop there.
“When 9/11 happened, we were very busy. I felt so guilty to be keeping my doors open during such a tragedy. But then I realized that people were coming here because it brought normalcy to their lives. To not stay open would deprive them of that.”
In terms of great food, genuinely good service and overall homey atmosphere, Roberta’s is a success. Roberta is quick to remind me that it is her waitresses and cooks who add their own contributions to make it successful. Keri chuckles as she tells me that people say they come for the entertainment, but I think they come here because it’s their home away from home.
Everything moves a little slower at Roberta’s, and for that one meal that you spend there, you gain a few friends and a story to tell. So, if you’re in downtown, your stomach needs nourishment and your brain needs stimulus, try Roberta’s Village Inn, if not for the entertainment, then for the French toast.