Calexico eatery a destination restaurant' for many, owner says


May 28, 2001|By AARON CLAVERIE, Staff Writer

CALEXICO — The owner of Hometown Buffet here, Carlton Hargrave, zoomed around his restaurant at 8 a.m. checking things and saying "Hi there!" to his equally industrious employees.

Outside, the sun glistened off the freshly hosed concrete porch where five teen-agers milled about an hour before Hargrave's restaurant opened.

The youngsters are members of a church group on their way to Mexico to build homes over Memorial Day weekend.

The group's unofficial spokesman explained why they were waiting to eat at the Hometown Buffet instead of the vast number of restaurants in town.

"It's a tradition," said 16-year-old Jimmy Slagle of San Bruno, a San Francisco suburb.

He said his group comes to the Calexico buffet restaurant every time it drives down Highway 111 for missionary trips.

Inside the restaurant, prep cooks and staff prepared the brunch fare that would greet the teens and their chaperones.

Hargrave said such customers who make a trip to his restaurant a tradition are a main part of his success.


Once he found out the teens were waiting, he made sure they were asked to come inside and sit down.

Hargrave said he is proud the group returns every trip. He said the majority of his customers seek out his restaurant.

"People leave home with the objective of coming here. This is a destination restaurant," he said.

It doesn't hurt to be next door to Wal-Mart.

"Yeah, sometimes we get people who plan to go or have been shopping. The majority of our business, though, is people who come here specifically," Hargrave said.

He doesn't know if his restaurant is the most profitable in the Valley but, "I can't think of any restaurant that does more volume."

In addition to his customers, he credits his staff for any success he has enjoyed.

Dining room manager Brenda Beltran says the staff of about 80 full- and part-time workers is a close-knit group that enjoys helping people and has fun on the job.

Brunch diner and Calexico resident Arnolda Spence said she returns to HB because of the staff's "hospitality."

Her friend, Ralph Black, is especially appreciative of the staff's attention.

Black, a 90-year-old retired produce grower, visits HB twice a day most days of the week.

At 9 a.m., when the Calexico local makes his morning visit, the staff has usually poured him a cup of coffee and some orange juice. He says he keeps coming back because of the service and because "this place can't be compared with any other place."

Often he'll return for an early dinner around 2 p.m.

The decor of Black's favorite restaurant is simple, utilitarian and orderly, featuring deep green carpeting with matching chairs and wallpaper. Norman Rockwell prints adorn the walls, lending a touch of Americana to a place where Spanish is frequently the language of choice.

This mixture of cultures, commonplace in Calexico, is illustrated by the buffet's food choices. On the same buffet table that features sticky cinnamon buns, diners can add to their plates chiles asados and cebollitos asadas.

During a Friday brunch, the chilaquiles pan was ravaged while customers picked waffles and smothered them in peaches or strawberries.

Hargrave said the binational menu is one of the main attractions for the mostly Latino patrons.

He said some enjoy traditional American food — biscuits, gravy, grits and sausage patties — as a change of pace from traditional Mexican fare, while others prefer the familiar comida of home.

Hargrave said he works hard to find a balance in the menu that pleases everyone.

It's not always possible.

"Oh, I hear it if we don't have liver and onions," he said.

Even though HB is a chain, Hargrave's restaurant is unique in that he is the only independent HB owner in the country.

This freedom from corporate control allows him to offer different and unique items that no other HB offers.

On Fridays, dinner customers can choose between a Mexicali-specialty, shrimp patties with nopales, or an HB staple, carved roast beef.

In the case of a few "unidentified customers," they can scoop both dishes on their plates, then go back for a bowl of clam chowder, a few slices of carved ham, some seafood rice and top it off with a square of cheesecake.

"Almost everyone stops at the dessert table," Hargrave said with a guilty smile.

Hargrave's hybrid HB menu, which includes Japanese and Chinese food, is unique to the Valley although there are other local buffets that offer eclectic fare.

Hargrave decided to pay Buffets Inc., the owners of the HB name, for assorted menu recipes and the "scatter" buffet system, along with a royalty for use of the name, after discussions with HB co-founder C. Dennis Scott.

He said the eatery is one of the highest-grossing of the restaurants under the Buffets Inc. banner. A few years ago the Calexico location was in the top 10.

Before moving to the Valley, Hargrave ran McDonald's franchises in the San Diego area for 18 years. He said he loves living in the Valley and will continue to work at making his restaurant even more popular.

If it does become more popular, he might lose Black's business to Carrows.

"Sometimes on the weekends it will be really busy and I'll just pop on over to Carrows," Black said as he sat and talked with Hargrave.

"You know we'd let you in the exit," Hargrave said.

"Yeah, but I don't want anyone treating me special," Black replied.

Hargrave sighed and smiled.

Staff Writer Aaron Claverie can be reached at 337-3419.

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