In the restaurant business, chefs change jobs about as often as the lead in a Superbowl playoff. So to have stayed the course at one spot, worked your way up the ranks almost since the inception of a beloved eating institution, and still genuinely enjoy going to work every day, well, that’s worth noting.
Such is the case for Darryl Kimble, the manager at Bette’s Oceanview Diner on Fourth Street, which celebrates its 30th year in 2012. Kimble has been cooking there for 27 and a half years; he joined the kitchen crew at 19.
The perennially popular restaurant serves breakfast and lunch to an astounding 135,000 people a year, although it only sits about 50 inside.
But diner regulars already know the place draws a crowd (just like they know there’s no ocean view). Wait times for a booth or table are a given, though counter seats turn over more quickly — early in the week anyway. Weekend waits can stretch beyond an hour.
Customers seem to take it in stride. Bette and Manfred Kroening own the diner, which has a ’50s feel by way of a ’30s Art Deco aesthetic. The menu features diner favorites: eggs any style, home fries, pancakes (including their signature soufflé pancakes), waffles, and sandwiches.
We’re not talking fancy-pants-artisanal cuisine, but familiar comfort food that transcends time and trends, though the Kroenings now grow much of the restaurant’s produce on their five-acre farm near Sebastapol. It’s there they harvest organic fruit, greens, and pumpkins for their popular pumpkin pancakes.
Kimble, 47, who lives in south-west Berkeley, usually works Thursday through Monday. We chatted at the diner on Tuesday (he was filling in for an employee), over a plate of spicy scramble and chai.
Can you walk us through your trajectory at Bette’s?
I started as a prep cook, did that for about five years, making soup, scones, and muffins. Then I moved to the back station — that’s where you make the sandwiches and salads — and then they moved me to the line on eggs. I used to work on the egg and bacon line at my previous job at the Shattuck Hotel, so I was comfortable with that. And then, reluctantly, I took over as a manager. I didn’t really want to, but Bette asked me, and so I said I would give it a try. That was about 12 years ago, maybe more.
What do you like about working at Bette’s?
The people I work with are friendly and cheerful. I really like working for Bette and Manfred. They’re the best bosses you could have. I have freedom, I can talk with them with ease, they understand if I have a problem, or, if I want to change something on the menu, they go with it.
Everyone I work with is like family to me. I love the atmosphere here; it’s a relaxing, stress-free, and comfortable place. And the people-watching is good.
What do you like about your customers?
They’re friendly, as well. We have really loyal customers. Some have been with us since the place opened and come in every day. We know their orders by heart.
Are there any challenges working at the diner?
Coming up with new specials every day, seven days a week is a challenge. We want to make dishes that nobody else is doing. We don’t want to copy others. That’s an important distinction about the diner: we do our own thing.
How has the food changed in the past three decades?
The breakfast is pretty much the same as it was in the beginning. But we have more specials now — like fish tacos and meatloaf — than in the past. When I first started, the restaurant used to serve dinner, which we no longer do. Dinner service stopped in the late 1980s. We use more organic produce now. Bette brings it from her farm, about half of the produce we use comes from there.
How have the customers changed over the years?
They’re still the same, just older, of course. Some of our newer customers ask for certain things and we try to accommodate, we get the gluten-free, the vegetarians, and the vegans. We get customers now who just ask for egg whites, which we can do. But if someone asks for Egg Beaters [an egg substitute], we tell them: “No, we don’t do that.” All our eggs are good and fresh, we get them from Petaluma Farms.
How do you handle people waiting to eat?
We’re used to it. We get a rhythm going and we just don’t pay no attention to how long the wait is because we do really well for how small our kitchen is. Our record is 541 covers in a day on a weekend.
Do you dine out in Berkeley?
I don’t go out for breakfast (I’m not a big breakfast person) but I do go out for dinner quite a bit. I go to Café Rouge. I like their hamburgers and they have an open bar. I also like Kirala — they have really good sushi. And Rivoli is one of my favorite places. It serves really fresh food at good prices.
How long do you see yourself working at Bette’s?
I know I’m going to make it to 30 years working here. Just to do it. I’ll be 50 then.
What else would you like to do?
I wish I could open up my own place. I’d like to run a soul food-barbecue joint in Hawaii. I’ve been to Waikiki and the food is pretty bad. I’ve looked at places. But I probably will still be here.
Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
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