Open the door to the Marie Callender's restaurant in Coronado and you'll find a '50s-style, serve-yourself diner with the Shirelles on the loudspeakers, Corona beer in the cooler, a surfboard on the ceiling and plenty of chrome, glass and neon.
As important as the new look is the lack of table service, an integral part of the Marie Callender's chain since 1962. The Coronado diner is one of the three new Marie Callender's restaurants (the others are at Horton Plaza and North County Fair) to feature the cafeteria-style approach. Five older Marie Callender's in San Diego County still offer table service.
The decidedly different atmosphere serves a purpose: Marie Callender's Inc.--a wholly owned subsidiary of Ramada Corp. since February, 1986--is testing the new design with an eye toward opening more of the upscale diners around the country.
The three restaurants that opened in San Diego during the past year are part of Ramada's attempt at broadening the chain's appeal beyond its traditional "middle-of-the-road" clientele, according to Scott Jones, vice president of Marie Callender's.
Risk of Confusion
The trimmed-back menus at the three cafeteria-style restaurants mirror the fare found at full-service restaurants.
Founder "Don Callender has come up with a 1987 way to serve the same, quality food," according to Escondido businessman Alan Skuba, who opened two of the new cafeteria-style restaurants in San Diego County.
But restaurant industry observers who agreed that the chain needs to broaden its appeal believe Marie Callender's could confuse its solidly middle-class clientele as the bold new designs spread around the country.
"I don't object to the idea of a new concept, but I don't know why they didn't call it something else," said one restaurant and hotel industry analyst. "They run the risk of confusing customers. It's like McDonald's opening a fine steak house and still calling it McDonald's."
The new Coronado restaurant could prove to be the "right idea in the wrong location," according to one San Diego restaurant owner. "On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd really have to push to call (the restaurant, which is across the street from the Hotel del Coronado) a 5 for that kind of theme."
Jones said some confusion is healthy because "you've got to be flexible in this industry to survive. I think many of our competitors have become too repetitive and predictable, and that's what's helped us to prosper."
The chain's first cafeteria restaurant opened a year ago in North County Fair. "Don Callender just thought it up, after 139 sit-down restaurants," according to Skuba, who also operates a full-service franchise in Escondido and the new cafeteria-style restaurant in Horton Plaza.
Don Callender is "a real entrepreneur because . . . he realized (that) society now is geared toward a much quicker level of service," Skuba said. "(People) want to order, pay, eat and get out quickly."
Though Skuba "was eager" to test the cafeteria concept at North County Fair, he acknowledged that "I didn't make it big enough. We fill up in 20 minutes (at lunch time) and that's it."
Skuba believes his larger Horton Plaza restaurant, which opened in March, will prove that the cafeteria concept will be accepted--both by long-time customers and by younger San Diegans who might not patronize a full-service Marie Callender's.
Skuba also believes that the Horton Plaza restaurant will generate a healthy nighttime business, as theatergoers at the nearby Lyceum and the United Artists movie complex learn that the restaurant is open.
It could take longer, though, for Coronado's generally conservative residents to embrace the '50s-style diner, according to general manager Dean Jones, who acknowledged that "some people are really surprised when they see the inside."
Jones said, however, that the diner will succeed because tourists, residents and--when hotels under construction open--Coronado conventioneers have "nowhere else to go to get what we have to offer."
The new restaurants offer the same style and quality of food found at the sit-down restaurants, but with slimmer menus. "This is a 1987 way to serve the food that Marie Callender's has been serving," Skuba said.
Gene Coda, a co-owner of three Marie Callender's franchises in San Diego County, believes Ramada is heading in the right direction with its cafeteria-style operations.
Coda's franchises in Carlsbad and on Balboa Avenue in San Diego are "successful," but his franchise in La Jolla--in a hard-to-reach location on Fay Avenue behind the Saks Fifth Avenue store--has failed to catch on in a community filled with trendier restaurants.
"People walk out of the Balboa and Carlsbad restaurants with a pie under each arm," Coda said. "But the La Jolla market is totally different, it's a much older clientele, very affluent, and they don't want dessert."
Consequently, Coda is "seriously considering a renovation along the lines of what Alan (Skuba) has done at Horton Plaza. What he's done is the right concept in the right place."