Julie Butkus delivers breakfast on a recent morning shift at Peppertree… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
The Secret Santa of Glendora works swiftly, cheerfully, her blond ponytail bouncing out from underneath her fuzzy red hat on this December afternoon as she glides from table to table.
The guy eating the scrambled eggs gets a nudge about his sorry Raiders. The couple with the waffles gets an earful about that crazy Yasiel Puig. Statistics are liberally poured out like syrup. Opinions are plunked into the middle of the table like a bottle of hot sauce.
She loves the Kansas City Chiefs. Do you want bacon or sausage? She thinks USC never should have replaced Ed Orgeron. Would you like biscuits or toast? It might finally be time for Kobe Bryant to retire. You want a refill on that tea?
For the last 16 years in a modest family-owned restaurant on Route 66 called the Peppertree Cafe, the Secret Santa of Glendora has built a sense of community and connectedness with the most universal of languages.
Julie Butkus is the waitress who talks sports.
"I've got the perfect name for this, right?" she says with a grin.
The perfect name, and the perfect patter, her intelligent sports quips entertaining everyone from disarmed dudes in football jerseys to elderly couples who will spend two hours nursing coffees just to listen.
"Sitting at one of her tables is like tuning into ESPN for an hour," says Glen Grant, one of her countless retiree regulars.
Butkus, 45, with steely blue eyes that turn red when she covers them with Kansas City Chiefs contact lenses, spreads her passion five days a week from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. with a mixture of softness and sassiness that turns the Peppertree dining room into a family room.
She'll hug a frail woman whose beloved New England Patriots just lost a game, she'll high-five a couple of construction workers whose UCLA Bruins are on a roll, and she'll put down her coffeepot to argue about last night's college basketball game with two cops.
If the whipped cream on your waffle is in the shape of the Angels logo, that's Butkus. If you hear someone in the kitchen whooping at a football score on a Sunday afternoon, that's Butkus. And if the scrawl on your check reads, "Go Chiefs." Yeah, Butkus.
"No, no, we don't talk sports," says Bob Elias, a retired teamster, with a laugh. "She talks sports, and we all just listen."
If Butkus were on morning sports talk radio show, the ratings would be astronomical. Even among a group of longtime Peppertree waitresses who are locally renowned for their kindness, Butkus has become so popular, diners will decline tables that aren't in her section and wait until she becomes available. She is sometimes given as many as three extra tables — giving her 13 tables and booths at once — to accommodate her fans.
"She's an amazing waitress — half the people who come in here ask for her," says Dave Dallas, Peppertree owner. "Then once they sit down, they'll sometimes sit for three or four hours at a table just to hang with her."
New customers might think Butkus is just another wisecracking sports fan. But hang around a while, and you'll realize her mandate is much deeper. Sports is more than her passion, it's also her currency for buying trust and opening hearts.
"She uses sports to make everyone feel a connection," says fellow waitress Cathy Estrada. "Sports is something everyone can talk about when they sit down and look forward to talking about again when they come back."
That connection is particularly important in a place like the Peppertree, where many longtime customers are older and alone. She uses sports to comfort grieving widows, energize uncertain new retirees and tease groups of older men who just like to show up and make fun of her Chiefs.
"She caters to our many seniors, a lot of elderly and lonely people who don't just come here to eat, but to spend time with her," Dallas says. "In all sorts of ways, she connects with them."
The real secret to the Secret Santa of Glendora is that she also uses sports to connect with herself.
Julie Butkus grew up as a sports nut at a time when there were few professional opportunities for women in the sports world. Her role models were Howard Cosell and Chick Hearn. She never thought sports was something a woman could pursue. She married at age 18, had two daughters, divorced, and her life's path was settled.
"It's hard. I look at some of these women on TV today and think, 'Wow, that could have been me,'" she says. "But I was a single mom with two girls to raise. I needed to work."
In the summer of 1997, while having breakfast at the Peppertree, she asked a manager if they were hiring. He asked if she could start the next day. She did, and has been a fixture there ever since, doing the two things she loves, helping people and talking ball.
"Sports can give everyone such a great high, who would not want to talk sports?" she says. "Everyone has a team and everyone wants to talk about their team, and I'm right there with them."