Memories were shared and a birthday celebrated on the retro diner’s final night in business.
By Brandon HENSLEY
One night 17 years ago, Lucy DiMino had the late shift at Rocky Cola Café. As she was still closing up around 1:30 a.m. she heard a knock on the window. It was one of her two sons, 13-year-old Scott, with a couple of his friends. DiMino’s house was within walking distance to the restaurant, and Scott had decided to check in on his mother.
She let the boys in, and they sat down and talked. Not about anything in particular, just about life. They ate apple pie and drank vanilla shakes, and DiMino recalled it being one of the most loving conversations she’s ever had.
“I just will never forget that day, for me,” she said.
And now, those times at Rocky Cola are gone. The opportunity for them happening again disappeared Sunday night into the cold, winter air on the edge of the Montrose Shopping Park, a stark contrast to the many warm memories the restaurant had helped make since it opened in 1988.
This week was closing time for the venerable retro diner, the place families made their weekly trek to, the place you just had stop in when you came back in town for a visit.
Burdened by the current economic climate, there was no chance of Rocky Cola emulating the TV trope of a struggling hangout spot being lifted up by the community and eventually saved in the 11th hour.
Yes, the place was crammed in its final week, but that goodwill gesture was ultimately a thank-you sendoff for what Rocky Cola used to mean for most people.
“It’s heartwarming to see everyone coming out for us, but the biggest phrase I’ve heard is, ‘Oh my God, we used to come here all the time,’” said DiMino, who has managed Rocky Cola for 24 years. “And I told them, ‘Yeah, that’s what [did us in], that used to.’”
DiMino isn’t bitter, she just recognizes the changing landscape of Montrose and the consequence it has had for her business.
“Look at this street now. It’s loaded,” she said in reference to the other eateries that dot the shopping park. The festive atmosphere on Sunday night produced 30- to 45-minute waits for a table. That was something employees haven’t seen in a while.
“There hasn’t been a wait in quite a few years, unless there’s a Christmas parade or Oktoberfest,” said server Jennifer Vandergeugten.
Vandergeugten’s first job was at Pam’s clothing store, which used to be in the shopping park, and she echoed DiMino’s sentiments on why Rocky Cola was closing.
“We used to have cute shops here,” she said. “We had things that drew people to shop and then come and eat. Those things are going away … there’s nothing to bring people in to shop in the area.”
The thought of closing crossed DiMino’s mind in September (her sisters Mary Ellen and Antoinette helped her run the place) and by December it was clear there was nothing they could do.
Appreciation began flooding in. DiMino said newspaper articles about the closing brought in many patrons, and Rocky Cola’s Facebook page has been inundated with requests by people, including those serving in the armed forces overseas, to have shirts saved for them.
“Every day’s been busier than before,” said DiMino, who added she’s received personal phone calls from places like San Diego, Utah and Texas offering blessings.
There were lots of hamburgers being consumed this week, the same ones that used to be $3.95. In 2012, those burgers cost almost $9.
“You do feel kind of terrible,” DiMino said of charging that much, “except those people don’t realize all the other expenses. Food costs go up.”
It isn’t just the food costs. She said if Rocky Cola were to keep going into January, renewal payments, such as insurance, would have cost $30,000.
The Enslow family didn’t care about the rising prices, though. Dave, Annette and their two sons Diego and Logan came in five times in the final week to show their support. Dave and Annette began eating there before they had 13-year-old Diego.
“We know all the staff by name, including the bus boys,” said Dave.
The warm atmosphere and the friendliness of Lucy, Mary Ellen and Antoinette were key reasons the family loved eating at Rocky Cola.
“They always had a warm, genuine feel to them,” Annette said about the staff. “It’s meaningful to come here and have a meal.”
Dave cited the diner for being a place to see familiar faces. This was the place to meet after Little League games, the place to go every Sunday during the Farmer’s Market, the place to congregate during the Station Fire.
“Just tonight, waiting for a table, I’ve seen five different people I know,” said Dave.
Familiarity is what Vandergeugten is going to miss the most. She’d start her shift in the morning, and said she gained a following of fans, some of whom have sons and daughters she went to school with growing up.
Like any good server, “I know what they want to eat before they even walk in the door,” she said.
Vandergeugten picked up a serving job in Valencia when she heard about the fate of Rocky Cola. In addition, she works two other jobs. She is married and lives in Granada Hills, and has no time to rest.
“We have a mortgage, we have two kids,” she said. “I need to work. And I like it. I’m very active. I just need to keep going at all times.”
Where will Kelly Phelian go now that her favorite place is closing? The almost 13-year-old planned to have her birthday party there this month – her birthday is Jan. 18 – but opted to move it up to late December to accommodate Rocky Cola.
“I always wanted to have it here,” she said. Her table was in the back with her large group of friends and family on hand. She ordered her favorite meal, Curly’s Favorite, which consisted of hash browns, cheese and bacon.
“It’s so sweet she agreed to have her birthday three weeks earlier,” said DiMino.
Kelly is from La Cañada, but she came to Rocky Cola frequently after classes at Revolution Dance Center in the shopping park. She and her friends don’t know where to go to eat now.
“I’m going to have to work on that,” she said.
Eventually, a cake her mother made was placed before her, and after the final birthday cake blowout in Rocky Cola’s history, the lights went out for good several hours later.
DiMino said she hopes the place stays a diner. If it does, maybe that will allow another manager someday to create a memory like hers, the one where one time late at night, a son knocked on the window with his friends, and the mother let them in to eat apple pie and drink vanilla shakes, and everything was good.
Maybe it still can be.
“I’m a strong person,” DiMino said, “so yes, I’ll figure out what’s next.”
Rocky Cola Said ‘Home’ to this Marine
By Mary O’KEEFE
Travis Scott, U.S. Marine Corps, is home for Christmas, spending some time with family and friends before he goes back to his base in Hawaii and then waits until September to end his tour of service.
Scott graduated from Crescenta Valley High School in 2008 and since his enrollment in the Marines has had two tours in Afghanistan. In an earlier interview, Scott spoke of what he missed while oversees. He said it was little things like having breakfast at Rocky Cola Cafe in Montrose.
“It’s just American food,” he said.
After both tours in Afghanistan and the recent station to his base in Hawaii, Scott wanted the exact same thing – breakfast at Rocky Cola. He had read that the restaurant was closing its doors.
“I went back to Rocky Cola. I had gone out to the shooting range with a friend and she didn’t know they were closing,” he said. “I said let’s go and grab a bite to eat.”
He said it had become a tradition, the Rocky Cola breakfast.
“I would just get off the plane from Afghanistan or Hawaii and go to breakfast,” he said.
He said knowing he could come back to Rocky Cola, a place he had known forever, was comforting. He was sorry it would be closing their doors.
The familiarity of the restaurant helped ease what is often a difficult transition for those returning from military service who want to fit back into society.
“The memories [of what you have seen] are still there and will always be there. It sinks into the back of your mind,” he said.
His advice to those who are coming home is to have a plan and stick to it. Scott has researched the best colleges for what he wants – a career in the music industry that also supports his continuing interest in football. Scott played Falcon football while at CVHS.
He has found that colleges in Mississippi Gulf Coast fits his needs and plans to attend in January of next year.
“A lot of guys have a plan set up but it doesn’t go into action because when they get home it takes awhile to adapt,” he said.
Many that joined the military did so directly after high school. Going back to school after serving can be difficult. Scott advises to have a plan and put it into action, however if it doesn’t work, have a back up plan.
Scott credits the Marines with giving him the discipline he needs to succeed.
“They (U.S. Marines) teach you everything: discipline and a good work ethic,” he said. “I view [college] as just another deployment. Another chapter in my life.”
Bob Thompson stopped in at Rocky Cola Café for a nostalgic farewell on Friday, enjoying a last Brown Cow.
“I was there at their opening 25 years ago, and saw President Clinton there chomping on a turkey burger in the ’90s,” Thompson recalled. “Great memories!”
Before leaving, he asked owner Wally Curry to sign his receipt and received a farewell pin from Zenia.