At first glance, Alan Clarke doesn’t look like the sort of person who would get excited about a bagel, lox and cream cheese. But when he stops by Cindi’s on Central Expressway for breakfast, that’s what he gets.

 

          “There’s something about the place,” Clarke says. “The food is part of it certainly, since you can’t that that too many other places. But there’s something else about the place, something familiar. I just like going in there, compared to all the chain places out there.”

 

          The world may be getting increasingly impersonal, and our lives may be getting equally as frenzied, full of e-mail and TiVo and drive-thru windows, but there are places left where none of that is important.

 

Go into the almost two-decades-old Cindi’s — or to any of the handful of the places still left in our neighborhood that have been here longer than many residents — and it’s possible to understand why a breakfast joint is one of those things that make a neighborhood a neighborhood.

 

          “It’s all about hospitality,” says Diana Rubio, the catering manager for the 10-year-old Stern’s Delicatessen in Preston Center , owned by Larry and Sheila Stern. “They know they can come in here, bring their families, and just chill out at their ease.”

 

          If this sounds a bit much, if it seems a bit too romantic about places that do nothing more than serve bacon and eggs, remember what was lost when the neighborhood drug store vanished and when the corner gas station was swallowed up.

 

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with progress, and it might be more convenient to pick up a prescription at the grocery store, and it might be quicker to buy gas at the convenience store.

 

But something bad happened when the druggist who knew your family was replaced by a guy who drives in from Garland , and when it no longer made bottom-line sense to have a kid around to clean your windshield.

 

          So here are six reasons why you don’t want your neighborhood breakfast joint to go away:

 

 

 

1. Because they really do know your name

 

“Our customers are really loyal, and you can come in here any day of the week and see the same regulars,” says Van Tran, who works for Cindi’s owner Anh Pran, who bought the restaurant 16 years ago. “We work really hard at keeping them happy.”

 

Regulars are the lifeblood of places such as these, making up anywhere from three-quarters to 90 percent of the business. Second-generation customers aren’t uncommon, and most of the restaurants that have been around long enough have third-generation customers, says Johnny Meredith, whose family has owned Kel’s since 1963, first at Preston and Forest and today at Forest and the Tollway.

 

Why are regulars important? Because, since neighborhood places are usually family-owned, they don’t have the marketing budgets to run TV ads to attract new customers like their corporate competition. Once you get someone in the door, you have to do whatever you can to keep them there, says Tran, whether it’s knowing what certain customers always order or offering to make substitutions without necessarily charging for them.

 

 

2. It’s part of the American Dream

 

          These are not just family places, but family-owned places, often by first-generation immigrants. Michael Adamozsky, who owns Deli News, Too at Forest and Preston, still has the accent of his native .  When he opened his first restaurant 20 years ago, his goal, he says, was no different than any other immigrant who has come to this country in the past 230 years — become successful, raise a family, find a home.

 

“We’re friendly people,” he says. “We like people, and they like us. We sell them what we know.”

 

          Perhaps the most well-known of these immigrants is Pran, whose family arrived in the U.S. from Vietnam after the war, penniless and unable to speak English, and today owns three Cindi’s — including locations in our neighborhood at Campbell and Coit, and Marsh and Forest.

 

 

3. They’re not chains

 

Bob Rubright, who is the breakfast joint expert for the Southern Foodways Alliance, a group in Oxford, Miss. , that studies Southern food history, traditions and customs, says it’s possible for a chain restaurant to eventually become a neighborhood icon. But, he says, chains start with a distinct disadvantage — they’re not usually owned by anyone in the neighborhood who knows about the neighborhood and is all that interested in the neighborhood, and where the managers and employees come and go.

 

This is not as metaphysical as it sounds. Several of Meredith’s employees have worked for his family for decades. And if you pay careful attention to the marketing the chains do, you’ll notice it usually emphasizes the food, be it all-you-can-eat-pancakes or an egg dish with a goofy name. The marketing usually doesn’t talk about the atmosphere or whether the waitresses will know who you are. (Rubright says one mark of a true breakfast joint is that someone knows your name by a second or third visit.) Even the chains know their limitations.

 

 

4. A chance to eat something you can’t get anywhere else

 

          The most popular breakfast restaurant meal is bacon and eggs. But don’t tell that to the customers who go to Deli News, Too for the salami and scrambled eggs, to Kel’s for the biscuits and gravy, to Stern’s for a bagel and a schmear, or to Cindi’s for lox, onions and scrambled eggs.

 

That’s why it’s probably not a coincidence that so many neighborhood places appeal to ethnic sensibilities, whether it’s Texas country or Jewish.

 

It’s one thing to get a bagel at some chain; it’s something else entirely to get one at the Deli News, Too, where Adamozsky brings them in from Manhattan ’s legendary H&H Bagels.

 

Besides, that’s some of the best marketing the neighborhood breakfast joint can do. It gives them something unique to offer customers and helps carve a niche not served by others, as the marketing consultants put it.

 

 

5. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day

 

In Alan Rudolph’s cult-film favorite “Trouble in Mind,” Genevieve Bujold plays a diner owner who tells ex-cop Kris Kristofferson why she owns a breakfast joint: “Because the sun is coming up, and the day is just getting starting, and people still have hope.”

 

The irony: That sentiment is becoming increasingly less true. Talk to the owners and managers of these places, and they’ll tell you it’s getting harder and harder to make a living from just breakfast customers, especially during the week.

 

Says Meredith: “Everybody likes breakfast, but who has time for it? Nobody stops in, because they’re whizzing by on their way to work.”

 

On the weekends, when customers, and particularly younger customers, come in later for brunch and early lunches, business is brisk, and finding a table can be difficult. That helps make up for a lot of the empty tables at 7:30 in the morning on a work day. But can a breakfast place survive only selling breakfast two days a week? No one is quite sure.

 

Another irony: The good crowds on weekends that help pay for the other five days, Rubright says, probably are part of larger sociological trends — the return of younger adults to urban areas, urban in-fill and even teardowns. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that this trend raises property values in the neighborhoods around the restaurants, which increases rents and makes it that much more difficult to make money.

 

Several of Adamozsky’s locations (he also owns Deli News at Preston and Campbell ) have been almost as much an investment in real estate as in a restaurant, he says.

 

 

6. Why they really are an endangered species

 

          It’s not a coincidence that the heyday of the breakfast place probably started ending about the same time that McDonald’s started serving breakfast in the early 1980s.

 

Today, if most people eat breakfast out during the week, it’s a muffin and a cup of coffee in the car, a doughnut at work or something from the drive-thru.

 

“We’re a dying breed,” Meredith says. “The chains have come in and put places like this out of business. It’s all corporate. People would rather get a breakfast burrito than sit down and have breakfast at a place like this.”

 

          But there are other forces at work, as well. Those people who do have time to eat breakfast, including the retired and the elderly, move away or die. Then there are the complications of small business and family business, whether it’s pockets that aren’t deep, the difficulty in making decisions that everyone has to agree on — particularly in deciding how to deal with the changing business environment — or being too quick to make changes in an attempt to keep up with the changing business environment.

 

          “Sometimes, I think people want more restaurant-type places,” Rubio says. “Too many of them just don’t seem interested in the small, little, deli-like places like ours.”

 

Thankfully, though, enough still do, and the neighborhood would be the worse for it if they didn’t.

 


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