Jay Dee Cafe’s kitchen manager, Stephanie Wilkins, posted a desperate message on Facebook last year. “Heart to heart, tell all your friends and family about us,” wrote Wilkins. “We need your support to keep my little kitchen running, it supports our little family. Thank you."
The Main Street fixture Jay Dee Cafe has been a part of the Alhambra community for nearly 70 years. But the economic downturn hit the business hard.
“The recession really took a toll on us,” said Wilkins. “I almost thought we weren't going to make it, with us being a cash-based business, customers had less cash to spend. We had to limit our help, limit specials, and events like our half-off burger day on our anniversary.”
Jay Dee’s customers, who tend to be over 40, are as much fixtures of this Alhambra institution as the memorabilia on the dimly lit walls. “We’re all bosses here,” said Wilkins, 31, as she gives a customer change from the World War II, army-issued cash register.
In the 1930s, before it was Jay Dee Café, the building was another bar called Elgin’s. At the time the area was known as the “Skid Row” of Alhambra, according to Jay Dee bartender Linda Moody. Ed Kral, Sr. and Jim Lima, Sr. bought the bar and opened to the public in 1944. The name Jay Dee Café was homage to a bar Kral and Lima frequented in the San Gabriel Valley. They couldn’t use that existing bar’s name, so they spelled out its initials: “J” and “D”. Now Kral and Lima’s sons are the second generation of owners, and over the years they have had less of a hand in the daily operations of their bar.
Wilkins’ grandfather first visited the bar as a patron in 1975. After hearing more than 30 years later that the Jay Dee kitchen was going to be available for rent, Wilkins and her husband Jose Jorge started running the kitchen six years ago. Jorge, 40, is the cook.
Despite the shift in running the kitchen, many of the homemade specials served at Jay Dee have remained the same for nearly 70 years: burgers, steak and potatoes, and meatloaf on Thursdays. “We don’t have a microwave in the kitchen,” said Wilkins. “We are very old fashioned, and our regular customers never expect to rush in and out.”
The patrons tend to be more drinkers than eaters, but some come just for the food. Most live locally in Alhambra, South Pasadena, El Sereno, and San Gabriel. Wilkins recalls one customer who recently passed, but frequented the bar until he was 96 years old.
The walls near the pool table are almost exclusively dedicated to photos of the Kral and Lima summer hunting trips, and a caribou head trophy looms over the room. In the hallway leading to the bathroom hang images of wet t-shirt contests and chili cook offs along with some old photos of an Alhambra parade.
Moody, 61, who moved with her family from Pico Rivera to Alhambra in 1957, has worked as bartender at Jay Dee’s for 32 years. She’s mostly responsible for collecting the memorabilia on the wall over the last 10 years.
While the recession and Alhambra’s new businesses have hit Jay Dee’s old-fashioned ways fairly hard, Wilkins says business has picked up again recently. “I would have to accredit that to really faithful customers who are always telling friends and family about us,” she said. “We are truly honest with people, so that we can keep on cooking, and our wonderful customers really respond to that.”
Jay Dee Café’s kitchen is open for breakfast and lunch from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, and for dinner 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The bar is open from 6 a.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Sunday.