By Michael Aushenker
It’s called the Rookie Run.
For years, the Santa Monica Fire Department station on Hollister Avenue kept a tradition that, on the last day of fire academy, new recruits were told to meet at the beach in their sweats for an intense day of boot camp-style exercise. Like most of his peers in the class of 2009, Dusty Rodriguez was understandably nervous.
“We meet at the [Santa Monica] Pier, we start running down Main Street, then we stop at the Omelette Parlor,” Rodriguez, now a fireman at the station, recalled with a smile.
From that good-natured hazing ritual, Rodriguez joined the ranks of the many regulars who have cherished the Ocean Park Omelette Parlor, a fixture on Main Street since 1967.
But on this Wednesday morning, he and fellow Station 2 firefighters gathered for one final meal at the Omelette Parlor, which cracked its last egg on Dec. 18.
Owner Bob Hausenbauer said he regretted closing the restaurant but was unable to reach a fair lease agreement with the building’s owners, who he said demanded an unspecified “take-it-or-leave-it” rent hike during negotiations earlier this year.
Similar to the recently shuttered Broadway Deli and Junior’s in West L.A., Hausenbauer said the Omelette Parlor is a victim of overzealous landlords and drastically rising rents.
“I think they’re trying to drive up the market value,” he said. “But Main Street is not Abbot Kinney [Boulevard]. It’s not the Promenade.”
Marvin Lotz of Malibu-based American Commercial Equities Management said the company would not publicly discuss details of a tenant’s lease, but in an email added “there are always two sides to a story” and wished his former tenant good luck.
Emma Keckin, a waitress at the Omelette Parlor for nearly two years, said she wasn’t surprised by Hausenbauer’s announcement of the closure to employees last month.
“I knew there were problems [since summer]. I saw people coming, looking at the building,” said Keckin, 20, a third-generation Santa Monican who believes the restaurant’s closure is really an extension of a years-long pattern of gentrification.
“When I was growing up, I loved this place. I’ve been eating here since I was a little girl,” she said.
Some regulars didn’t realize it was the Omelette Parlor’s 11th hour until they arrived that morning.
David Sabel, a commercial real estate investor who has made a weekly pilgrimage to the Omelette Parlor from his home in Beverly Hills for 20 years, had been traveling and learned the bad news from a sign on the door.
“I liked that it was open at 6 a.m. I liked Bob and his sister. It was worth the drive down,” said Sabel, a smattering of morning newspapers before him.
Occupying the booth behind Sabel, recently retired USC journalism professor Ed Cray was slowly digesting his usual “2, 2 and 2” order — two scrambled eggs, two pieces of French toast and two strips of bacon — along with that morning’s Los Angeles Times.
Cray’s been an Omelette Parlor regular for 15 years. The author of 20 non-fiction books, he was celebrating the completion of a 50,000 word manuscript on American folklore the night before.
Cray said he’ll miss “the conviviality, the ease” of an Omelette Parlor morning.
“Bob is friendly,” he said. “I don’t know many restaurants where the owner comes over to talk to you.”
Breakfast of champions
Long before the restaurant’s final early bird deals ended at 7 a.m., Hausenbauer fluttered from table to table, kibitzing with loyal customers one last time.
Hausenbauer, a youthful 50-something in his T-shirt and baseball cap, started at the Omelette Parlor as an employee in 1990. He left in 1993 but returned a year later to buy the diner, inheriting a folksy eatery with a bright and airy décor, spacious booths and a sun-kissed back patio courtyard.
Since taking over, Hausenbauer said the restaurant went from $850,000 in annual gross sales to $2 million by the year 2000.
But, “people always think that if you own a restaurant, you’re a millionaire. If they’re a single-owner operation, they’re just making a living,” he said, adding that a tax increase of $3,500 per month in 2005 “took away any raises for my employees.”
Due to the recession, the Omelette Parlor lost about 20% of its business in 2008 until a 2011 rebound, he said.
As owner, Hausenbauer kept building on founder Al Ehringer’s colloquial menu, which included “the Schwarzenegger,” an omelet stuffed with diced ham, shredded Swiss cheese and chopped tomatoes that was named after the action-star and erstwhile California governor, who used to stop by on occasion.
Hausenbauer added a tribute to a now deceased senior couple from Culver City who used to order waffles on the weekends with the “Chuck and Lee Love Our Waffles.” The Italian sausage and tomato-filled “German Gastaldi,” was a play on Herman Gastaldi, a former employee who has since gone into banking. The “Joe & Betty Lou” was named after the 91-year-old couple who, as recently as last week, still drove down from Pacific Palisades.
“It’s all about relationships,” Hausenbauer said
Fry another day
Cray said he does not have a plan B for a breakfast spot, and Sabel may end up spending more time at Canter’s Deli in the Fairfax District.
Keckin said she may use the layoff as time to rethink her career, but beamed that one day “I’ll love to tell my kids and their kids that I worked for such a landmark.”
Hausenbauer said half-jokingly he may repair to a beach in Thailand, but he has other plans afoot. He still owns the Omelette Parlor name outright and is already in communication with potential landlords on the Westside.
Whatever happens, though, it won’t be here.
“It’s nice to see loyalty exists. L.A. is a place of foodies who have no commitment to one place and want to try whatever is new,” Hausenbauer said. “I’ll miss the regular customers the most.”
In February, a new group of rookies will enter Santa Monica’s firefighter academy. But come April’s graduation, Rodriquez said, “I don’t know where they’re going to run to.”