Hobee's famous blueberry coffee cake was invented by Peter Taber in the restaurant's early years. Ryan Levi/KQED
Hobee's famous blueberry coffee cake was invented by Peter Taber in the restaurant's early years. (Ryan Levi/KQED)

In a Startup and Cash-Out World, One Silicon Valley Restaurant Keeps It Homespun

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 says.

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 says 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.

Tim Diebert sits at his favorite table at Hobee's Restaurant in Palo Alto. Diebert has been a Hobee's regular for 30 years, and he's been coming almost every day since he retired two years ago. (Ryan Levi/KQED)

“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 says.

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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.

In a Startup and Cash-Out World, One Silicon Valley Restaurant Keeps It Homespun

In a Startup and Cash-Out World, One Silicon Valley Restaurant Keeps It Homespun

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,” says 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.

Ed Fike (R) and his family sold Hobee's Restaurants to Camille Chijate (L) this summer. Hobee's has been owned by the same family since it opened in 1974, and the Chijates have worked for the chain for almost 30 years. (Ryan Levi/KQED)

“We don't have heirs, and it couldn't have gone to our family,” Ed says. “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 says 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'

Pans of Hobee's famous blueberry coffee cake cool in the kitchen in the Palo Alto location. (Ryan Levi/KQED )

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 says, “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 says.

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.

Juan Carlos Zaragosa sprinkles cinnamon streusel topping on Hobee's famous blueberry coffee cake. Zaragosa has been making coffee cake at Hobee's for 25 years. (Ryan Levi/KQED)

“People come in and they ask, ‘Who’s in the kitchen? Oh Juan Carlos!’ ” he says, 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 says. “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.

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