Charlie Gilbert - Charlie's Coffee Shop
In photo: (Charlie Gilbert with daughter Katie)
Charlie Gilbert, of Charlie’s Coffee Shop on the West Patio at the Farmers Market, is one of the several merchants who grew up at the Farmers Market. Her family had moved to LA from Texas during World War II while her father served in the Navy. Her mother worked at Douglas Aircraft but left that work after discovering the Farmers Market. Her mother got a job at a Market restaurant, and Charlie’s aunt worked at Manning’s Coffee Shop (it stood where the French Crepe Company now resides). In high school, Charlie started pouring coffee at Manning’s after school and she’s been part of the Market ever since. Charlie’s Coffee Shop is best known for its wonderful French toast, huge breakfasts and good cheer. Each day a member of Charlie’s family is behind the counter working, including grandchildren. They are part of the good cheer Charlie’s customers have come to know, along with the shout-outs to customers when their orders are ready.
I was only in the 9th grade, but I wanted to work here. My mother was working at what is now Phil’s Deli, it was called Dana’s then. When the restaurant was sold, the new owners wanted her to stay late. She didn’t want to, so then she got a job at another Market restaurant called Chris’ Coffee Shop. It was where my restaurant is now.
I lied to Chris about my age so I could work for him, I told him I was 16. I worked there all through high school. When I grew up, got married and had three children, I’d bring them back to the Market for all kinds of occasions. When my kids were teenagers, frankly I was a bit bored being a stay at home housewife. We had bought a new house and I redecorated the whole thing, it took me about a year. And after that, I really had nothing to do. I threw a couple of lunches, showed off my work and that was it. So that’s why I once said to Chris “if you’re ever eager to sell, let me know.”
Then one day, in 1976, he called and asked “Are you a gambler?” He said his son wasn’t that interested in owning and running the place, and asked what would I think about buying it. Well, I jumped at the chance to buy it. My mother was still working there, she knew how the place was run, but I have to admit I was scared. I lost 10 pounds after saying I’d do it. My mother was still there and knew everything. I couldn’t have done it without her, I’m sure. She reassured the staff that everything would be alright.
We weren’t sure what to call the new restaurant. Everyone said I should use my full name, Charlie Sue and call it Charlie Sue’s Coffee Shop, but I just didn’t like that. So it was just Charlie’s.
I was scared, but everyone helped. Our vendors taught me how to order the food, my mother was a tremendous help, the entire staff just knew what to do. I loved running the counter, which surprised me because I am truly shy. But I had good management skills and I knew how to deal with people. I mean, I’d been a housewife, so I know how to manage people. Marriage and raising three kids up to junior high, that’s no easy task.
At first, I didn’t do much of the cooking. But then I added dishes to the menu. When I bought the restaurant, they had a much smaller menu than we do now. They didn’t use as many fresh fruits and vegetables. So as the menu grew, I just felt the cooks weren’t cooking fast enough, so that’s when I started to cook.
I knew how to cook, but I wasn’t a professional cook. I think it was just a matter of doing it. It was common sense. But you have to learn the proper proportions. It was easy for me to do, I had cooked for my family every day. I didn’t mess up too much, it’s pretty repetitious. Beating eggs, I will tell you one thing about doing that, it’s made me strong. Made my heart really strong. My doctor was impressed with my health and he asked me what did I do and I told him “I’m a fry cook, I lift plates up and down every day.” That’ll build your strength.
My kids came to work after school each day and they’d help on the weekends. As they got older, my daughter Jody wanted to go to college and she became a paralegal. Kyle worked with me for many years but then he wanted to go out more on his own, although he still helps on weekends and whenever we need him. But Katie’s been with me the longest. She was just a natural. She’s truly interested in the business, she can do everything.
Working with my daughter is comforting and very secure because when she’s there, I know everything will work out. It’s more like she’s my partner, not an employee. When we’re all here working together, including Katie’s children, our customers love to see that we’re a family run business. They really relate to it. It makes them feel like they’re part of our family.
My favorite thing about owning this store has been the people I’ve gotten to meet. It’s just amazing, I love talking to all the people. It’s made me more confident. I was sort of bashful growing up and you can’t be bashful at the Market. When I worked here when it was Chris’ Coffee Shop, they’d write numbers on the ordering tickets but to me it was so hard, people had to hold on to a number and then they’d lose their number. I figured everyone knows their own name, why don’t we just call them by name when the orders are ready. So we just started doing that and it became a part of Charlie’s.
You can’t work for me if you’re not ready to shout out those names. It’s a requirement. When some of the junior high kids were so bashful, I’d tell them “You have to yell real loud,” and they all knew it and they did it. I think it helped them the way it helped me.
Even the celebrities who come by don’t mind us yelling out their names, they’re just part of the family, too. These days though, I have no idea who some of the celebrities are. My high school kids who work for us on the weekend get excited about who’s here, but I don’t know who they are.
What really thrills me is that so many customers who were kids growing up now come and bring their babies to meet me. We have a man who came to us this week who used to come in all the time. He’d moved to Italy and he loves telling me that when he and his wife had their baby, they came directly from the hospital to show me the baby. And now that baby is in college. My gosh.
I’m surprised we’ve lasted this long. I’m surprised that it’s gone by so fast. When I say 30 years, I mean I hear people say something happened a long time ago in the 90s and I say WHAT, that’s a long time ago?
I’m surprised I could do this, I would never have thought I could. I look out there and see people eating and I say to myself, “I made all that food for them.” And I can’t believe I did all that.