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One of Several Chains Moving Forward by Looking Back : Ruby's Diner Fattens Up on Nostalgia Craze

January 01, 1986|BRUCE HOROVITZ | Times Staff Writer

If the Los Angeles Rams all piled into Ruby's for supper, Coach John Robinson would have to stand outside and wait for a seat.

Balboa's end-of-the-pier diner, popular with Rams players, is so tiny that it can hold only 45 patrons--the exact roster of the National Football League team.

But nightly, crowds of aficionados of "American" food fill the seats at Ruby's--and at similar diners nationwide.

Old-fashioned eateries are enjoying a resurgence, bucking what food experts contend is a trend to lighter, healthier meals and luring customers with nostalgic bills of fare that feature burgers and malts.

The fad has created at least half a dozen chains in the past few years, and many have brought their 1930s-,1940s- and 1950s-style diners to the Southland. Ruby's has a simple 1940s theme in both menu and decor but big growth plans, including eventual expansion into the Los Angeles area.

A year ago, Ruby's opened its second restaurant, a 70-seat diner in Mission Viejo. The popularity of the first two restaurants led to a plan to open four more in Orange County during the next 16 months. This includes tentative plans for a 100-car drive-in diner, slated to open in mid-1987 at Fashion Island in Newport Beach, where customers would be escorted into renditions of 1950s cars and served burgers and malts by car hops.

Other intended sites are at South Coast Plaza II, a retail center under construction across from the huge main mall in Costa Mesa, and in Laguna Beach and Tustin; Ruby's owners said they are eyeing expansion into Santa Monica and La Jolla as well.

"We return people to a more simple time," said Doug Cavanaugh, president of Ruby's Diner Inc., who co-owns the chain with Ralph Kosmides. "People like the feeling of being carefree," Cavanaugh said.

Other restaurateurs agree.

Hershel's Deli & Bakery Co., a 1930s-style deli operation in Riverside, was founded in late 1983 and now has six stores open, including one in Orange County, and plans 16 more by mid-1987.

"Nostalgia is just the icing on the cake," said Hershel's founder Harold Butler, who earlier devised the Denny's concept and ran the Naugles fast-food chain for several years. "You go to a restaurant because you enjoy the food."

Dalts is an 11-unit chain operated by the Dallas-based company that owns 104 TGI Friday's restaurants. Dalts, opened in 1980, is having better sales growth than the Friday's restaurants and expects to add eight stores in 1986. Also, Ed Debevick's, a Midwestern chain whose diners specialize in dishes like meat loaf, mashed potatoes and thick gravy, plans to open restaurants in the Los Angeles area this year, where its majority partner, Collins Foods International, is headquartered.

Skeptics in the industry, however, question the longevity of the current nostalgia wave.

"I just can't see us becoming a country of diners," said Barbara Dawson, West Coast editor of Restaurants & Institutions. "We're in a society of people who are learning to like healthy foods. I can't see them suddenly switching to meat and potatoes."

Dennis I. Forst, analyst at Seidler Amdec Securities Inc. in Los Angeles, said: "They'll be popular for a while, for the same reason that 'Leave It To Beaver' reruns are now popular."

Ruby's opened in 1982 with three employees and first-day sales of $65. Today its two stores employ 160, and 1985 sales are expected to hit $2 million. Cavanaugh predicted that, by the end of 1986, the company will own and operate four stores with combined sales of $4.5 million.

The menu is diner basic. A Rubyburger goes for $2.55. A bowl of clam chowder costs $2.45. And a malt goes for $2.10. Even if these prices seem slightly steep, customers don't seem to mind.

"You don't have to get dressed up to eat here," said Kelly Partridge, a 21-year-old student at UC Irvine. She frequently bicycles from her Newport Beach home to Ruby's for breakfast. "I like the '40s music on the jukebox. The words seem so simple."

The typical Friday or Saturday night wait for a seat at Ruby's in Balboa is 90 minutes. "It's the classic example of having too little space," Cavanaugh said.

But expansion is out for Ruby's Balboa location--a building that operated as a bait shop from 1940 to 1977. The fragile Balboa Pier won't handle any more weight.

Saw Site While Jogging

Cavanaugh, a Balboa Island resident who previously owned a restaurant on the East Coast, was jogging along the beach a few years back when he got the idea for an end-of-the-pier diner.

He checked with the city of Newport Beach and discovered that officials had plans to tear down the structure. He quickly signed a 15-year lease with the city and spent about $80,000 rebuilding the structure, which he named after his mother.

Much of the construction was done by Cavanaugh and Kosmides themselves.

The 1940s concept was selected because "that's when Balboa had its heyday," Cavanaugh said. Then, the partners "searched every memorabilia shop and researched every library in Southern California," he said, in planning the decor.

Attention to Detail

The close attention to detail is evident--from the antique clock and Coca-Cola signs hanging on the wall to the rebuilt cigarette machine by the counter.

Waitresses wear pinstriped uniforms, aprons and tiara caps.

Today, Cavanaugh said, "we have the Ruby's concept down to a science."

That science, they believe, will soon see Ruby's change from a tiny, diner-by-the-sea to a chain of California restaurants doubling in size annually.

"Our restaurants are mini-time machines," said Cavanaugh. "When you walk in the front door, you forget it's 1985."

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