Locals remember the food at Warehouse, Roberta’s and El Merendero
by Sierra Dasher
photography by Terrence Lewis
While many La Verne restaurants have come and gone, three have proven they are here to stay. Warehouse Pizza, Roberta’s Village Inn and El Merendero have established themselves as local destination favorites for decades. What is their success secret? All three owners responded with one resounding answer: hard work.
John Knerr founded Warehouse Pizza in 1972, and Kenny Schonfeld, present day owner, bought it from Knerr’s son in 1986. At the time, Kenny owned the Sneakers sports bar in Upland. He purchased Warehouse Pizza with his partner Kirk Anderson; the two worked as co-owners until Anderson left in 1994 to open two pizza restaurants in Colorado and later one in Maui, Hawaii.
Kenny says on his first visit he did not see the diamond in the rough. He saw it as just another pizza shop. Nevertheless, almost 30 years later, he says he could not be happier with his investment. Warehouse Pizza has grown to be a destination go-to place for the community where family and friends can come to have a good time. Local sport teams, families, retirees, friends; they are all here to gather around a large pizza, to talk, to present awards or to watch the action on large TVs. “We get a real nice mix of who’s in La Verne—a lot of University of La Verne students and faculty; then we get local business people, some of the seniors from Hillcrest, long-time La Verne residents, and the teams from Bonita High and families,” Kenny says. “People feel comfortable coming here and hanging out.” So what has made Warehouse Pizza so successful in a downtown area that has had trouble making businesses stick? “Absolutely the food is good here; it’s reasonably priced, and we’ve created a comfortable atmosphere and environment where everybody— from little kids, to the families, to the seniors, to blue-collar and professional people, like the professors—feels comfortable here,” Kenny replies. At the top of Kenny’s favorite’s list are families who come in and become regulars. The children who grow up eating Warehouse Pizza come back and bring their own children. “What’s neat to see is what the kids draw while they eat here, and we hang them up in the back. They say things like, ‘I love your pizza.’”
The most popular items on the menu with the locals, says Kenny, are the pepperoni pizza and the turkey avocado bacon sandwich. His own personal favorite: either that same turkey sandwich or the “Special” pizza, with pepperoni, sausage, mushroom, bell pepper, onion and olives. Daughter Sasha, a vegetarian, says she likes to “spice up” her own favorite pizza: a mushroom, jalapeno combo. She also enjoys making salads for patrons. The family’s menu has stayed consistent since 1986, with the only change being the addition of garlic breadsticks and cinnamon sticks, made from the pizza dough. Kenny is proud of the quality of his food; it all has good flavor and is consistently, expertly made. Patrons can find Kenny or his daughter Sasha up front most days. “It’s nice to go to a place where you see a familiar face all the time—especially a family owned business. I’m glad to be a part of that. It makes you feel better,” Kenny says. Indeed, the father-daughter team has captured the essence of a family favorite pizza shop in old town La Verne. It is the go to place to have great food with great people.
Warehouse Pizza: 2340 D St., La Verne.
Roberta’s Village Inn
Another popular, enduring restaurant, just next door to Warehouse, is Roberta’s Village Inn. This cheery little diner was founded in 1969 and has changed ownership a few times. It came into Roberta Virgin’s hands in 2010 when she added her name to the signage. Roberta started as a waitress in 1977 and for 38 years worked her way up. “My first day of waitressing, I hated it, and I went home crying. My mother also worked here, and I never wanted to come back. Then I ended up owning the place, and 38 years later I’m still here.” She laughs that when the previous owners announced they were going to sell, she bought the restaurant to keep her job.
Now the restaurant has changed hands again, into the ownership of Francisco Ramirez. Francisco, a chef at Roberta’s since 1999, can still be found cooking in the back, even as the current owner. Roberta and Francisco both work as a team to uphold the legacy of Roberta’s Village Inn. Francisco says making the transition to owner was easy with Roberta there to guide him. Both agree that owning a restaurant in La Verne has been a great experience with strong support from the community, and they would not want to be in any other town.
Roberta’s Village Inn holds a homey atmosphere created by the employees. Roberta says locals sometimes call them the “‘Cheers’ of diners.” It does seem to be true that everybody knows everybody at Roberta’s. The locals come in, and Francisco already knows to start their “usual.” On this day, a group of regulars—retired city of La Verne employees, University of La Verne retirees and previous and current La Verne shop owners—gather at their same booths and request their “usual” for breakfast. One of the men tells Francisco, “I know this is your restaurant, but if someone comes in and is sitting in my booth, I’m going to kick them out.”
What really sells to the locals are the breakfast specials, such as the weekend steak and egg special for $6.95. It features a five-ounce top sirloin steak, two eggs, hash browns and toast. Two of Roberta’s favorites are the bacon and French toast, and Francisco, well, he says he loves to eat anything on the menu. While Francisco left Roberta’s name on the diner sign, he has made a few ownership changes. He has added three nights a week for dinner, Thursday through Saturday. The new addition of dessert cobblers are popular, especially during the holidays.
The reason for the diner’s success? Both reply: consistency and hard work. “People think it would be fun to run a restaurant; it’s hard work really. You have to be willing to put in the time,” Roberta says, stressing the importance of consistency, in many different aspects such as the menu and their early opening hours. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” she says wisely.
Roberta’s Village Inn: 2326 D St., La Verne.
South on E Street, just across the Metrolink tracks, is another well-known local favorite: El Merendero. This restaurant has been serving authentic Mexican food since 1975, when Willy and Petra Lopez founded it. The married couple moved to California from Mexico, bringing with them tasty recipes to cook for the locals. Petra Lopez was previously a cook in Puebla, Mexico, and she brought her chef experience to her new La Verne restaurant. Victoria Lopez, their niece, came in 1985 and joined in the restaurant management. She learned the unique Merendero style, and when her aunt passed in 2010, she took ownership of her family’s legacy—the restaurant.
Victoria says the reason for their success is the authenticity of their food, which keeps people coming back for more. “It’s because of the food; we cook the beans, we cook the rice, and everything is fresh. It’s not from the cans, so that makes it tastier.” Her recommendation for those thinking of opening a La Verne restaurant: focus on creating great recipes and serving tasty food. “People are always going to remember the food.” The locals’ favorite is the #39, which includes a giant plate of chalupa, an enchilada, a hard taco, a taquito, rice and beans. Victoria’s own personal favorites are the shrimp cocktails and the chicken enchilada with green sauce. However, one will enjoy anything on the menu. “Some people have been coming since they were little, and they always come back,” she says.
In 1980, the family opened another restaurant and bakery location on Garey Avenue, Pomona, near the Fox Theater. Victoria says time has proven that their La Verne location is the most popular, main location. Victoria, as owner, likes to be heavily involved in La Verne. She enjoys always lending a helping hand to her employees. She switches between the various positions of cook, cash register and waitress. She says that El Merendero offers a special experience on some holidays, for example, presenting roses and cake to those who come in on Mother’s Day. Whatever day it is, one will feel special at El Merendero.
El Merendero: 1910 Fairplex Drive, La Verne.
The next time hunger strikes, seek out one of these local favorites. These restaurants offer a unique experience, delicious food and a chance to make memories. These three unforgettable destination restaurants have proven they are here to stay, and they are what make La Verne stand out.