Lupita Becerra turned 15 in 1990 and took a hostess job at Hof's Hut, a mid-century Long Beach coffee shop as well known among locals as the Queen Mary.
Her folks didn't own the brick-accented diner under the black-and-white awnings, but it was still to them a family business. Dad worked in the kitchen. A dishwasher turned cook would become her boyfriend turned husband.
"We stay because they treat us well," said Becerra, 37, now a waitress. "It's great. It's a big family."
This oldest of six remaining Hof's Huts closed Thursday after about 51 years in the Long Beach Marina. It will soon be easier to find kale, couscous and quinoa at the gentrifying intersection of Pacific Coast Highway and 2nd Street than Hof's "Mom approved!" meatloaf, "Those Potatoes" and pancake sandwiches.
There's discomfort in the loss of comfort food. Longtime customers aren't taking it sitting down — whether at the lunch counter or in upholstered booths or the darkened cocktail lounge brightened by colorful prints. In January, they staged a keep-it-open protest rally beneath Hof's red, serif-flared sign.
"Having that gone now will leave such an emptiness," said Carrie Thomas, 65, of Huntington Beach, who started coming with her girlfriends in the mid-1960s. "It's part of your youth, gone. ... Not having Hof's to go to is having something taken from your life."
Her friend Debbie Vignovich, 63, of Long Beach, remembered meeting boys there after socials and football games during Cherry Coke-sipping times that were "pretty innocent by today's standards."
Owner Craig Hofman said his sublease is up and he could not reach new terms that made business sense. A Gelson's market and CVS pharmacy are planned for the center, but Hof's 225-seat space is unclaimed.
"I've talked to a lot of customers, and they're devastated," said Hofman, 61, whose four adult children work for his Signal Hill-based company, which also operates the larger Lucille's Smokehouse chain. "They are losing their home, their meeting place, a part of their lives."
His grandmother started it all by cooking burgers at a Belmont Shore stand in the 1940s. His parents, Donna and Harold "Hof" Hofman, then opened Hof's on nearby 2nd Street the day Craig was born in 1951. Marie Callender came in to bake the pies.
Hofman noted that "most of our competitors are gone." Greasy spoons like Johnie's Broiler in Downey are disappearing from the region, supplanted by fast-casual chains like Chipotle, Corner Bakery and Veggie Grill — each of which have locations near Hof's. Disappearing too are Hof's-like benefits, which include health insurance and what employees say is comparatively good pay.
"Turnover in our restaurants in general is very low compared with industry standards," said supervisor Carl Tierney, 61, who started as a bartender 38 years ago. "I tried to leave a couple of times but they talked me into staying."
Customer turnover is also low, in no small part because of the coffee pots set on the tables of anyone who asks for a refill and the children's spaghetti dinner for "499 pennies." Fifty-year regular Jayne Lane, 77, of Long Beach considers servers friends and hugs a favorite busboy when she comes in for fish tacos and breakfast quesadillas.
Hofman understands the affection for his oldest restaurant and hopes customers will visit the others — two in Long Beach and one each in Los Alamitos, Buena Park and Torrance — where he has transferred many of the familiar employees, including waitress Becerra.
The 2nd Street Hof's is going, but "As long as I am alive," he said, "there'll be a Hof's Hut open."