History and tradition make SCV’s ‘well-greased’ machines

Halfway House Cafe in Santa Clarita. Dan Watson/The Signal
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There are three things Santa Clarita residents take great pride in: Christmas, football and breakfast.

Whether it’s whose side of town has the best Christmas lights; who will win the annual Foothill League rumbles under Friday night lights; or which breakfast diner they pledge their loyalty to, the conversations and traditions are fiercely important.

And none more so than when it comes to our unifying appreciation of the most important meal of the day. Probably recognizing this aspect woven into the very fabric of the town, restaurant and coffee shop owners have come and gone through the years, continually trying to leave their mark on the local Sunday morning scramble.

Breakfast at The Original Saugus Cafe. Dan Watson/The Signal

But there are three solidified breakfast spots that are always going to be brought into any discussion. Spots that have seen the valley change and grow over the decades, and despite the constant turnover in competition, continue to draw their regulars: Way Station Coffee Shop on Main Street; Saugus Cafe on Railroad Avenue; and The Halfway House Cafe on Sierra Highway.

As historic as they are busy on any given morning, these three restaurants have drawn longtime residents into the restaurant rivalry. They all speak highly of one another, but each one claims to have the best coffee, customers and/or breakfast in town.

What you’ll find is, competition aside, these three restaurants have been able to cement themselves as local institutions all for the same reason: tradition.

And those traditions defines what makes them popular: their history, their staff and their menus.

Way Station Coffee Shop

Forty-eight year employee, Chef Victor Gonzalez prepares breakfast at The Way Station Coffee Shop in Newhall. Dan Watson/The Signal

The Way Station Coffee Shop, or just “Way Station” to their regulars, has always been a family-owned and operated business. Starting in 1971, the restaurant was opened by the mother of current owner, Eric Leeser.

“And not much has changed since then,” said Leeser. “We have kept the 70s look going on here, and we’ve made the food in the same way since we did when we first started.”

Leeser took over the business in 1990, and has made a conscious decision to keep not only the same atmosphere and menu over the years, but much of the staff, as well.

“It’s been the same staff for 15 years, and we’ve even had (the staff’s) kids come and work here,” said Leeser. “Victor Gonzalez has been our short order cook for close to 40 years, and three of his kids have worked here.”

Known locally for his unbroken presence behind the Way Station grill, Gonzalez is seen everyday with either a mountain of hash browns cooking in front of him, pouring gravy over biscuits or plating up the restaurant’s popular ham and eggs meal.

“Something really special just happens here everyday,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez manages all the food that comes through the restaurant and says that he can go through hundreds of pounds of hash browns in a single week. And during the Christmas season, he says he’s cooked up to half-a-ton of shredded potatoes in a single seven day span.

However, according to both general manager and cook, what draws many people in over the years has been the Kris’ Special: two eggs, two strips of bacon and hashbrowns all served on a muffin and covered in either chicken or sausage gravy.

“It’s named after a waitress that worked here a while back named Kris who came up with the idea,” said Leeser. “And we’ve always tried to keep our prices for it, and the whole menu, the same.”

“I’m proud of what we’ve done over the years… and we’ve not only seen the grandkids (of our customers) grow up, we’re now seeing the great grandkids grow up,” said Leeser. “We’ve watched the community grow and we’ve always been a restaurant for everybody.”

The Saugus Cafe is open year-round except for Christmas Day. It opens daily at 5 a.m.

Saugus Cafe

Forty-year employee, Server Gail Johnson pours coffee for long-time customer Larry McKinley at The Original Saugus Cafe. Dan Watson/The Signal

First opened in 1886, 33 years before The Signal newspaper had published its first edition, the Saugus Cafe has been a favorite spot for generations of Santa Clarita residents. (Longtime owner Alfredo Mercado still holds on to a hat the restaurant had made to celebrate its centennial in 1986.)

Mercado said the name on his menus was famous before he had even started working there as a busboy. But after working his way up from cleaning tables to running the entire kitchen, he decided in 1996 to buy the place from the previous owners with the help of another coworker, in order to keep history alive.

“He never had plans to own a restaurant of his own…  but he had been working here since he was a teenager,” said Yecenia Mercado, Alfredo’s daughter.

And since taking over, Mercado says he takes pride in rarely ever changing the menu, staff or atmosphere of the building. And he should know, he’s been involved in operations for decades, including his time as an employee.

“I think he still does it because he wants the plate to come out like he’s always seen it and wants it to stay consistent,” Yecenia said. “He’s kept the menu the same, the recipes the same. He’s never wanted to change anything… except for the Alfredo Bloody Mary, which we named after him.”

In addition to keeping the menu the same, Mercado has also tried to keep the staff the same, making his business a family-run operation, with close to 20 members of his family currently working or having worked in the restaurant. And those employees that are not related to him by blood are related to him by history, according to Yecenia.

“We’re such a good team and we can actually count on one another. I could not see the place running the same if it weren’t a family,” said Yecenia, whose Dad apparently calls her the restaurant manager to other people, she says, but was never given the title formally. “I grew up here and behind the scenes — I would always throw on the apron when I was a little girl. I’d always try to reach the register to hit the buttons, but couldn’t reach. That’s when Karen, a waitress who worked here, would come pick me up so I could play with the register.”

The Saugus Cafe is open 364 days a year, with Christmas being the only exception. Their most popular breakfast item, according to the owner’s family, is the country-fried steak.

The Halfway House Cafe

Server Shannon Corder prepares for the lunch crowd at Halfway House Cafe in Santa Clarita. Dan Watson/The Signal

Occupying a building that has been around since the early part of the 20th century, when Santa Clarita was still a mining and railroad town, the current owners of The Halfway House Cafe in Canyon Country, Bob and Sally Lima, first bought the place in 1994.

“We weren’t married at the time, but my husband, Bob, bought the building and then had to shut it down until 1996 for remodels,” Sally said. The historic building had been damaged by flooding in Sierra Canyon, and in the nearby Santa Clara riverbed. “He’s the one that put the train rails in to make sure that didn’t happen again when he reopened.”

After getting married 20 years ago, Bob and Sally have ran The Halfway House together, and watched as the valley expanded, traffic increased and their business grew. The reason for their success: They didn’t change their winning formula.

“I grew up seven miles down the road from here, and grew up going to Halfway House,” said Sally. “And we keep doing what the Halfway House has always done, by making everything fresh.”

According to Sally, the restaurant has rarely, if ever, changed its menu or how it prepares food. For years, the most popular dish, eggs benedict, is served every time with potatoes that are never frozen; they’re hand-peeled by the staff everyday. The pork chops are locally cut, and even the biscuits are made from scratch everyday.

She attributes the restaurant’s popularity, which sees people throughout Southern California come visit, as the result of the reliability of her employees. She describes them as her family running a “well-greased machine.”

“Me and my brother would come in here for breakfast and lunch when we were kids… but I now work here and do a little bit of everything,” said Shannon Corder, who works side-by-side with her mom, Dessa Canada. “I get to spend a majority of my time here with my mom, serving and talking to our fantastic customers and regulars… I have no desire to work anywhere else.”

“Our employees are what are valuable and we have some fantastic customers that come in,” said Sally. “We’re all one big family who have worked together for years, making the same food for the same great community.”

“If it ain’t broke,” Sally added, “don’t fix it.”

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