Bay Area icon Hobee’s restaurant celebrates 50 years

From time to time, a server at Hobee’s will deliver free cookies to a family’s table. This seemingly spontaneous act of kindness is, to owner Camille Chijate, something deeper — the carrying on of a tradition started by the restaurant’s founder 50 years ago. 

Back in 1974, at the dawn of Silicon Valley, Paul Taber moved his family from Hawaii to Mountain View to open his homestyle family restaurant. Tired of the impersonal feeling he got when working for a big restaurant conglomerate, Taber wanted to do something special to put smiles on the faces of children who came in with their parents – Chijate’s recalls the tradition:

“He was really big on rock polishing at home, so he would bring polished rocks in his pocket to work. On the weekend, he would go to the little kids and just give them a cool little polished stone.”

Though the original Mountain View location is gone and Taber has passed, his legacy lives on at a chain of Hobee’s restaurants in Palo Alto, Redwood Shores, Sunnyvale and, soon, San Jose.

Hobee’s Palo Alto is the longest-standing of the chain. Built in 1976, just two years after the original Mountain View location, it exists on what used to be the thriving “Restaurant Row” of El Camino Real. Infrastructure changes and the growth of California Ave resulted in many original restaurants in the area closing. Five decades later, Hobee’s is the only “old legend” of the Row still standing, according to Palo Alto historian Matt Bowling.

Taber made-up the name “Hobee’s” for the business because he thought it had a welcoming and lighthearted feel – and that’s the environment he wanted to cultivate at the restaurant. This close-knit, personal atmosphere became an unofficial Hobee’s trademark. 

“People come in, they become regulars, they become friends. They come to your wedding,” said Chijate, who met her husband and co-owner, Daniel, while working as a server at the restaurant in the 1980s.

Chijate said she and her employees remain committed to honoring Taber’s goal. Chijate reminisces over the time her fellow employees washed the car of a new customer, or when she gave an extra couple cookies to a family about to move. 

“Having the liberty and the permission to do silly, fun little things like that and make it an individual experience for people… made [working at Hobee’s] feel good,” Chijate said. “This would never happen at Denny’s or IHOP or something.”

This supportive restaurant environment endures today. “Here, we are like family with the customers,” said Jesus Gonzalez, current manager of the Palo Alto location who has been working at Hobee’s for over a decade. 

When Hobee’s started out, there wasn’t much money for advertising. To get its name out in the community, the owners tried a more “hands on and personal” approach, according to Edward Fike, Business Advisor of Hobee’s and former partner to the late Peter Taber, Paul Taber’s son. Hobee’s started giving out free samples of their famous “mile-high” coffee cake at events. When races in the Palo Alto Baylands started popping up in the ’70s, Hobee’s was the only sponsor on the T-shirts at the time, Fike said. 

This strategy continues today. 

“Our model that we follow is not putting an ad in the paper … what we’ve learned from the owner from the beginning is you just do things for the community,” Chijate said.

When fires ravaged the Santa Cruz Mountains in 2020 and hundreds of people were displaced, many families were forced to stay in hotels in the valley near Hobee’s — and the restaurant stepped up to serve them. 

“If you’re here and you’re displaced, come in, we’ll feed you,” Chijate said of their motto at the time, “Our crew was so into it. They were really taking care of these people, playing with their kids.” 

Chijate said an instance like this is not unique to the restaurant culture. “It’s just who we are. And so those are the things we’ll hang on to, even as we sort of find new locations or update our current locations. It’s kind of the soul of the place.”

Connecting the restaurant in the community paid off in big ways over the years. “It feels like a community restaurant. It’s very Palo Alto-like,” said Robert Lawsonbrown, a devoted Hobee’s customer who has been coming to the restaurant for decades. 

Immersed in Palo Alto’s technology and startup culture, Hobee’s has been a stop for many entrepreneurs. Most notably, Peter Thiel ’89 JD ’92 and Max Levchin, the founders of PayPal, said that they came up with the idea for the company while dining at Hobee’s in 1998. 

“It’s a quintessential Silicon Valley place to do deals,” Fike said. 

Entrepreneurs aren’t the only celebrities who have made this restaurant a staple. Chelsea Clinton was a regular when she was a student at Stanford. Hobee’s has also delivered their famous coffee cake to Bill Clinton, and Joe Biden visited the Sunnyvale location in 2013 when he was vice president.

In the early ‘90s, Hobee’s tried franchising. Many of these restaurants did not succeed because of a lack of consistency. Preserving the Hobee’s atmosphere is important to consider when adding locations. According to Chijate, finding the right customer demographic is crucial. 

“Just because we lose locations sometimes, we’re not throwing in the towel because we know that the brand is beloved, and we know there’s customers out here that will come when we open in new locations,” Chijate said. 

Hobee’s is gearing up to open a new location in downtown San Jose. “This new one… is going to be a little different for us,” said Chijate. With Chijate’s daughter and her fiance joining the corporate side, Chijate is excited to bring fresh eyes on board. “We’re looking at the next generation and how to refresh the brand a little bit and keep it fun and relevant.” The new San Jose location will have a large patio, and the restaurant will feature craft beer and extensive dinner options for the first time. 

Though Hobee’s is constantly updating the menu with specials, the staples – like their omelets and coffee cake – remain consistent and Hobee’s commitment to using locally-sourced ingredients never wavers. “We are healthy… everything is fresh,” said Daniel Chijate, who’s been working in the Hobee’s kitchen for decades, and crafted most of their menu.

While Hobee’s will keep evolving, some things don’t change. When asked about his favorite part of working at Hobee’s, Daniel Chijate turns and gestures to the bustling restaurant. 

“Do you see it? My family. I treat them like my family. All my employees are my family. That’s my favorite part.”

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