When Gaby Sanchez walked into Egg Heaven three months ago, she was shocked to find her former workplace almost empty.
For as long as she could remember and before the onset of the pandemic, the 55-year-old Fourth Street diner, which only holds a few dozen seats, had almost always attracted a long line of customers in the morning.
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“More than half of them were regulars,” server and co-manager Sanchez said. “We used to bring out coffee to the people waiting in line.”
In COVID’s aftermath, the restaurant has faced periods of closure due to management turnover. Then, the owner faced difficulties trying to sell the business. The classic diner, left to rack up bills with little profit, is facing closure if things don’t turn around soon.
Sanchez has made it her mission to save the restaurant, and she’s recruited former server Maggie Mendoza and former chef Ruben Martinez to do just that. Together, they have dedicated a collective 67 years to the establishment.
First, the trio brought back the restaurant’s original 1969 menu.
Since the restaurant reopened in January after months of intermittent closures, Martinez has been back in the kitchen preparing familiar plates, like the “famous” Monterey omelet (bacon, ham, sausage, veggies, cheese and avocado), the super browns (loaded potatoes), and of course, their signature fluffy buttermilk pancakes.
But they’re still having trouble getting people in the door.
Soon after opening 55 years ago, it quickly became a locals’ spot, according to former owner Joe Byron. Originally, it was a drug store on the ground level of a two-story apartment building erected in the 1930s. Then, it was transformed into a tapestry and dress shop in the early 60s before finally becoming the corner cafe that stands today, he said.
For decades, it was a place where people brought their loved ones on weekends and ate breakfast with their children before dropping them off at school. Regulars stopped by so often they basically became family to the staff.
Mendoza was one of those regulars before she began working at Egg Heaven in 2003.
“I used to eat here, I was serving at the Mexican restaurant in the afternoon,” Mendoza said.
The manager at the time asked her five or six times to come work there before she finally agreed. Once she did, she said she didn’t look back.
“I loved it, completely loved it,” Mendoza said.
When the restaurant was looking for another server nearly a decade later, she convinced Sanchez to come aboard.
The pair met in the early 2000s while their children attended school together. Sanchez was working as a physical therapist at the time, but the schedule that Egg Heaven offered allowed her to be done with work in time to pick up her kids from school.
“Maggie said ‘we need someone like you,’” Sanchez said.
Like Mendoza, Sanchez caught the bug. The rush of service, the constant bustle to turn over tables to keep people from waiting on the sidewalk too long, and the tips, made it the ideal job.
“It’s like the rush you have when you do drugs,” Sanchez said.
“We became a family,” Mendoza said. “We knew people from babies to university.”
But all of that came to a halt when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down restaurants across the country. The business tried to come up with a way to make money and do good in the community during a dark period by partnering with an organization to provide meals for local seniors. Then, they hosted a taco stand outside.
But ultimately, it wasn’t enough. Eventually, Sanchez, Mendoza and long-time chef Ruben Martinez were forced to move on to other restaurants that had made a faster recovery.
Egg Heaven’s current owner Ramona Streit had been trying to sell the restaurant just before the pandemic hit. She asked Joe Byron, a former owner of the restaurant, to help her sell it, but he was unsuccessful.
While the business had many interested buyers, Byron said nothing worked out for one reason or another.
Different managers came and left and the restaurant couldn’t find its footing. The menu changed a few times and its lack of continuity became a turn off for regulars.
“My son convinced me to go back,” Sanchez said. “My kids said ‘we can’t let this happen.’”
While it was Mendoza who originally got Sanchez her job at the cafe, it was Sanchez who called on Mendoza recently and told her they had to leave their jobs to return to Egg Heaven to help steer the ship around.
Mendoza was a manager at a different restaurant where she knew her salary was more than whatever Egg Heaven could offer, but still, she agreed.
“I went through so many things over the 20 years [there]”, Mendoza said. “It’s not just a breakfast place, and if we can help then it’s time to help.”
Chef Ruben Martinez was also called to come back and Sanchez recruited chef Carlos Lopez who has 43 years of experience as a chef at Old Town Cafe in Seal Beach where Sanchez had found a job after leaving Egg Heaven.
Now, the team is focused on not only serving high-quality dishes from the original menu, they want to bring back the family atmosphere they had all those years ago. Sanchez’s daughter grew up in the restaurant, now she works there as a server on the weekends.
Recently, a young man came into the restaurant with an Egg Heaven tattoo on his arm. His parents took him there as a child and were still regulars. It’s these moments that bring the staff hope.
But their efforts to save a sinking ship have come at a cost.
“We were just talking about how we used to have money to save,” Sanchez said.
The restaurant used to make around $2,000 a day. Now, it barely breaks $1,200. If this continues, Sanchez and Mendoza — who now co-manage the restaurant — say the restaurant’s 55-year story may come to an end in a mere few months.
“This place is home to a lot of us,” Sanchez said. “We want to build a homey environment with good food and make it even better than it was.”
Egg Heaven is located at 4358 E. Fourth Street.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Ruben Martinez’s name.