by Heather Baxter
photography by Jason Cooper
Stepping into the door of The Village Inn is like taking a step back in time, back decades, where a little coffee shop was the place for good food and good gossip.
If one is looking for a quiet place to sit and relax, The Village Inn is not the place to go. Upon entering, a person can be overwhelmed by the aroma of different foods being made in the kitchen, the clatter of forks on plates, and the bustle of the waitress as she rushes to fill coffee cups; a pot of coffee in one hand, and a tray of food for table six in the other. Other sounds permeate the small room. Booths line two of the walls; a bar with stools runs along a third side. A cart stands in one corner, the soup tureen on top, a pile of bowls and plates next to it, allowing for faster service and more time for conversation.
The Village Inn is the kind of place where people go for breakfast and their morning cup of coffee every day. The friendly service, reasonable prices and hot food bring customers back daily and they maintain that clientele for periods that expand over years.
The Village Inn is such a staple for some of its customers that they line up in front of the door 15 minutes before the 7 a.m. opening on weekdays.
The story of The Village Inn can be found in the lives of some of its long-standing customers, but mostly in the life of one of its waitresses, one who has faithfully served there for more than 22 years.
“I have been coming to The Village Inn for near on to 40 years,” says Jack Lawler, 90. “When I retired 25 years ago, it became every morning that I came in here. This place starts my day; it’s a part of my life.”
Testimonials such as these embarrass as well as compliment the waitresses who serve Lawler. One of the waitresses who they embarrass so much is Roberta Virgin, who has waited tables at the Inn longer than the current owner.
“I started working here in December of ’77,” says Virgin. “My boss came in April of ’78.”
Over the years that Virgin has spent working at The Village Inn, she has seen many different waitresses come and go. She has been a part of each of these women’s training in one way or another, and has acted as the manager for more than 15 years.
“When I first came here, my mom worked here. She had been here for about six years,” says Virgin. “I was newly divorced and I had a 2-year-old. I didn’t work when I was married. I had a couple of jobs right out of high school and I just started out part time here, and here I am, 22 years later, manager.”
Right now, there are about six part-time waitresses — some who work only weekends and others who are just on call. One, Mona, has worked at The Village Inn for a little more than three years and presently works four days a week. She has worked for The Village Inn second longest, following Virgin.
One thing Virgin likes to present to the customers before they even walk in the door is a welcoming, homey atmosphere.
“One thing I have to say about this restaurant is these people – it’s like family,” she says.
A perfect example of this sense of family can be found in the support that Virgin received when she was involved in a serious automobile accident in 1981. While traveling along Arrow Highway, just past the Garey intersection, a driver who was traveling 80 miles per hour in a 40 mile per hour zone ran a red light and struck the car that Virgin was driving, critically injuring both her and her son, Christopher, whom she was taking to school.
“I missed a year and a half of work, and my son was in a coma for three years. These people literally took care of me during the time I didn’t work,” Virgin says. “Then, I gradually started to come back to work, and when my son died in ’84 they were all there for me, too. I mean, they all come together when you really need it.”
Virgin herself was in the hospital for six days, and had to spend the year and a half she was out of work learning to walk again. She also had to improve her speech, which was damaged as a result of the accident.
“These people have been through a lot with me. Sometimes I moan and groan and think that I’m burnt out, but sometimes I think I need these people more than they need me,” she says.
A customer for more than seven years, Boyd Phelps, a retired aviator, points out that-even if Virgin needs the customers-the customers, and most of the entire restaurant, need her.
“This place couldn’t run without her. She runs a tight ship,” Phelps says. “This place is my kitchen. One of the best things about it, is Roberta though. She takes good care of her customers, and I consider her a good friend.”
The camaraderie Virgin shares with those people whom she has waited on for so long is obvious to every visitor. Some of the regulars have been coming to the Village Inn for so long that Virgin is able to prepare their orders in advance and get their seats set up even before they walk in the door.
“Roberta needs to only serve you about three times before she knows what you want; like how you take your coffee, whether you like decaf or not, how you take your eggs, things like that,” Phelps says.
Not only does Virgin remember things like that; her memory concerning the number of years that customers have been frequenting The Village Inn is very sharp. When asked how many years he had spent his mornings at the restaurant, Phelps immediately looked to Virgin for an answer. Interestingly enough, the years are kept straight by paralleling them with hardships that Virgin has endured while serving at The Village Inn.
“You’ve been coming here since before I had the trouble with my thyroid, which was more than seven years ago,” Virgin says to Phelps when he looks to her for confirmation. Her answer comes without any hesitation.
Married only a year after graduating high school, Virgin was divorced a scant two years later and found herself alone. She lived with her mother and struggled to raise 2-year-old Christopher. She maintains that she never intended to become a waitress, but rather took the job part time at The Village Inn for only two reasons: her mother worked there and talked her into waitressing and she needed money to support herself and her young son.
“When I first started here, I hated it. I would go home crying every day. My feet hurt,” she said. “I didn’t like picking up people’s dirty plates. I was also really shy at the time. But the money started becoming good. I think that’s what really got me motivated. I knew what I was doing, it just was a lot easier.
“That first day I went home crying, and [said] ‘I’ll never go back to that place,’ and the very next day, I was back, and here I am, 22 years later.”
Virgin grew up in Covina and graduated from Baldwin Park High School in 1973. Instead of attending college, she opted to get a job at the Alta Dena Dairy as a demonstrator. She then worked for JC Penney, and also had a job at the K-Mart on Foothill Boulevard in La Verne.
“Before I came here, I worked at K-Mart, when it first opened. In fact, I started working there before it opened, getting the store ready. I hated it.”
Growing up, Virgin had five sisters and one brother. All of them are half-siblings, resulting from her parents’ earlier marriages. Virgins parents were married until she was 9, and when they split, she says she knew her life was about to change drastically.
“My dad’s in West Virginia with his third wife; my mom is divorced from her third marriage. [My dad] and my mom were together until I was about 9, and I was spoiled rotten and had a wonderful childhood up until then,” she said. “Then they split up. My dad and I were still very close. In fact, I lived with him at first. Then, he met his current wife, and we grew apart.”
Virgin has only seen her father sporadically since he moved to West Virginia, and she does not talk to him on the telephone at all.
For this reason, the familial atmosphere of The Village Inn is extremely important to Virgin. Not only are her customers and the other waitresses like family, Virgin says that her boss, Botho Auyang, is like a father figure to her.
“My boss is like my surrogate father. He has always gone out of his way to help me,” Virgin says.
Auyang remembers his first impression of Virgin, more than 22 years ago. “I remember that she was just a big kid at that time,” he said. “She’s become my right hand. She’s loyal, honest, nice with customers. We have a good arrangement.”
Even though Virgin finds herself spending a good portion of her week at the restaurant, Monday through Friday at the very least, she also spends time volunteering a lot at Veteran’s Hall in La Verne.
“I am on the committee for the Fourth of July parade this year, and have been for years,” said Virgin. “I also play the Easter Bunny.”
It is hard for Virgin to comprehend that it has been 22 years since she started working at The Village Inn.
“I kind of looked up one day and 22 years had gone by. Sometimes, that’s so unreal to me,” she says. “The experience, the people and my boss are responsible for me staying though. If he hadn’t been here this long, I probably wouldn’t have either.”
If Virgin were to ever leave, which she says that she cannot actually see herself doing anytime in the near future, some of her customers feel that nothing at the Inn would ever be the same again.
“I think we’d survive. I mean, there are other good waitresses here, but I haven’t known them as long as Roberta,” says Phelps.
Even with other competent waitresses available, Lawler cannot see a morning without Roberta there to banter with over a steaming, bottomless cup of coffee.
“She is the backbone of this place,” said Lawler. “She’s outlived a lot of customers who came in here every morning. It’s wonderful to walk into the door and have everything ready for us. She’s a fixture.” Lawler also points out that not many restaurants could offer this type of service while also providing the opportunity to forge friendships with new customers.
But with all the compliments and glowing reports from some of her regulars, Virgin still maintains that “I’m not the only reason that people come in here.” And, although her customers, as well as her boss, agree with this to a certain point, they also point out that she is the reason that so many people return, and that without her, the community that has grown within the walls of The Village Inn would never have begun to grow.