Pancakes with Pride

I’ll probably catch grief for writing about an IHOP. You know, The International House of Pancakes.

In a city this rich and vast, why not someplace with local flavor and character? Like Richard Riordan’s Original Pantry downtown or Uncle Bill’s Pancake House in Manhattan Beach? Fine. I love the latter and want to get to the former soon. But, for now, I feel compelled to tell about the IHOP in El Segundo because it showed me something sort of sweet and poignant about local life.

It’s the best IHOP on the planet. I’m sure of that. I don’t know how they inspire or motivate their associates, but someone should bottle it up and distribute it to other employers.

We discovered this gem when I was working in the area and my wife came from Kansas City for a visit.

“Let’s go to breakfast,” I said one morning. “There’s an IHOP not far from here. How bad could it be?”

I had come to regard IHOP as a middling chain with decent food of the indulgent variety (starch, fat and sugar) and a weary wait staff. Let’s say I never felt particularly energized when eating there.

This experience, however, was like a breath of fresh air. Walking into the IHOP on Sepulveda you’re greeted by a bright-eyed, eager hostess who cheerfully asks how many in your party and your name. You take a seat inside the small waiting area or, why not wait outside? It’s a beautiful day! Look around and you notice the clientele represents all walks of society. Also waiting for a table are a bed-headed dude sporting stubble and his girlfriend in a short, gauzy skirt and flip-flops. (It may be March, but it’s flip-flop weather.) A Hispanic grandmother, mother and grandbabies (one of the boys in an oversized Oakland Raiders jersey, the infant daughter passed out on mommy’s shoulder). A group of Korean twentysomethings. An elderly couple in a chatty mood – they probably come here every Sunday.

Soon, a white van pulls into the cozy parking lot and out tumble a group of crisply dressed African American teenagers. They have the countenance of unassuming, quiet confidence. You can’t help but admire them because you sense they’re an ambitious lot, perhaps having overcome obstacles and worked hard to get where they are. We guess this could be an interscholastic debate team, their advisor a gregarious middle-aged man also wearing white shirt and dark slacks, sunglasses swinging from his neck on a lanyard.

The advisor stops to speak to a group of elderly women in the first booth. You suspect they don’t know each other, but there’s something “knowing” about their encounter. It does the heart good to see this spontaneous eruption of conversational chemistry. The restaurant manager steps forward, gestures and speaks in an animated tone with the advisor while the kids glance sheepishly at each other. How ya doins are exchanged, small talk made. The advisor takes a quick head count and the manager marshals a couple of his servers to cordon off a few booths.

Within minutes our name is called. I’ve enjoyed observing this Sunday morning slice of life and forgotten how hungry I am.

We are seated by another hostess, who’s also wearing a genuine smile. The staff appears truly happy to see us, eager to accommodate. I love the sport of journalistic inquiry, and in these situations I find myself asking question upon question, some perhaps unanswerable:

1.       How can a national chain be inconsistent when it comes to quality of food and service?

2.       Why aren’t the other IHOPs like this?

3.       Is there something in the water?

4.       Is everyone always this pleasant because of the weather? (I actually think this hypothesis has legs.)

My law school son and I often pose these questions and discuss them. We are amateur sociologists, and it’s a good way to pass the time while you’re waiting for your food. The central question is always “what makes people the way they are?” Is it their environment, their upbringing or some unseen force, maybe a combination of heredity, social mores and expectations? Is it just a matter of having a good day or a bad day? L.A. is a perfect laboratory for such inquiry. In fact, one could easily become overstimulated from so much observation and reflection.

We’ve eaten at this IHOP several times and the experience never fails to delight. People take pride in their jobs, there’s a strong work ethic. The staff is accommodating and genuinely friendly. Like they’re glad to meet you. It’s a perfect foil to the fussy bistros of nearby Manhattan Beach – as exceptional as they are. Here you’ll find real, middle-class people – an illustrative cross-section. One time at this IHOP we were served by a young woman of 19 or 20 who told us she was in fact from the town of El Segundo. She had a self-confident but unpretentious manner. Blonde, wavy hair with a streak or two of some unnatural color and a piercing or two. She was quirky and quite the monologist. All she needed from us was eye contact, a smile and the utterance of an occasional “uh-huh.” Sometimes it’s nice to not have to carry the conversation – or even hold up your end. Maybe the incessant chirping drives some people crazy, but I found her disarming and charming at the same time. I can’t remember a thing she told us about herself as she readied her order pad and clicked her pen incessantly. That’s not the point. The beauty of this encounter was it thrust open a window on El Segundo –that unassuming community built around the Chevron refinery, tucked between LAX and the tonier South Bay. I remember thinking “I wish my daughter could hang out with her. They’d hit it off.”

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