While The Original Saugus Cafe has survived some of the Santa Clarita Valley’s worst disasters in its 133 years — including the 1928 St. Francis Dam collapse, the January 1994 earthquake and numerous fires — it’s the COVID-19 pandemic that might bring its demise.
“It’s not just us, (it’s) any small business, anyone that shut down,” said Jessie Mercado, the cafe’s manager and owner’s daughter. “We are doing the best we can.”
Like many others, the local restaurant is struggling to make ends meet in the face of numerous shutdowns, as they worked to adjust to the constantly evolving guidelines.
“I feel like every transition has taken a while for people to get used to,” Mercado said, adding that the most recent closure of outdoor dining has hit the hardest. “It was worse than the first shutdown. We were already struggling as it is, so it was horrible.”
It was only after a customer found out how slow things were and posted on social media, calling on the SCV community to support the local eatery, that things began to turn around.
Mercado said she recalls a customer asking how things were going, to which she replied, “It’s been bad. We probably have done two takeout (orders) today, and it was already noon at the time.”
“He said, ‘Hang in there. … I’m going to spread the word, don’t worry,’” she added.
That weekend, the orders began pouring in, and the restaurant was slammed as SCV residents stepped up to help the famous landmark keep its doors open.
“It was very unexpected,” Mercado said. “My server said he was busy like never before. Then Saturday and Sunday, it was crazy. … The phone did not stop ringing all day.”
Since then, Mercado has started a GoFundMe to save the cafe, which has raised nearly $10,000, and calls have remained steady.
“The attention it’s gotten has been awesome,” she said. “Everyone’s been so supportive. … All the people that keep coming in and buying gift cards or T-shirts and just even calling to ask how we are doing, it’s great.”
For Mercado and her family, the restaurant has been a second home since they purchased it in 1998, especially her father, who she said enjoys every minute of it.
“It’s worth it,” Mercado added. “He says, ‘I don’t see myself doing anything else. I don’t want to retire. … This restaurant is all I know.’”
Originally named Tolfree’s Eating House, the restaurant was first located across the street, next to the Saugus train depot, at the southeast corner of Railroad Avenue and Drayton Street, before it moved across the street in 1905 and to its current location in 1952.
Over the years, the restaurant has been featured in numerous western films, as well as more recent TV and movie scenes, with Hollywood legends such as William S. Hart, Clark Gable, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Charlie Chaplin, Harry Carey, Hoot Gibson and even President Theodore Roosevelt having reportedly visited the cafe.
Now, newspaper clippings and black-and-white photos of some of the cafe’s most notorious visitors line the walls — though much else hasn’t changed, as customers tend to protest when anything does.
“Every time we change something, our customers get mad. … People point out (any changes) immediately,” Mercado said, laughing. “They like to see the cafe they came into 40 or 50 years ago.”
It’s that hometown feel that Mercado says has stuck with the restaurant through the years.
“We know our regulars by name,” she added. “They don’t even order, they just wave at the cooks and they’ve already started making their food. It’s so awesome to see. I don’t think you see that much anymore.”
That hometown has now overwhelmed the restaurant with support.
“We appreciate the entire community coming together,” Mercado said. “We knew Santa Clarita was such a great city, but they’ve shown it to us a million times over. It feels like the entire city has come to the restaurant.”
The Original Saugus Cafe is located at 25861 Railroad Ave.