In Celebration of Orange Pancakes and Blue Roofs

Times Staff Writer

The original menu at International House of Pancakes included the Persian pancake, the Tahitian Orange Pineapple pancake and the Kauai Coconut pancake, which was topped with shredded coconut and coconut-sugar sauce imported from the Philippines.

That was in 1958, when there was only one International House of Pancakes and it was in Toluca Lake.

A businessman by the name of Al Lapin owned the place, and people who worked for him back then say he didn’t know much about running a restaurant. But he did know enough to hire a Cordon Bleu chef to think up those weird concoctions.


“Al wanted to have pancakes from around the world. That sort of thing,” recalled Rod MacPherson Jr., who was a cook at that restaurant. “That’s why he came up with the name International House of Pancakes.”

“IHOP’s” unusual recipes and peaked blue roofs soon became an icon of Americana. The small San Fernando Valley restaurant grew into a nationwide corporation that now operates 475 franchises.

International House of Pancakes has survived economic ups and downs, health-food fads and the onslaught of Egg McMuffins. In recent years, the pancake house has enjoyed a resurgence as baby boomers flock to the flapjack--along with upscale cookies and ice cream--and the corporation expects $330 million in sales this year. A 14th franchise has just opened in Japan (there are four in Canada), and 10 more will be built in Southern California.

“As far as I’m concerned, when we first started it was a disaster,” said MacPherson, who walked in off the street to get his cook’s job and now owns 16 franchises. “We threw the doors open and people came in right away, and we didn’t know what we were doing.

“No, I never thought it would go this far.”

MacPherson, a few other old-time franchise owners and a half-dozen corporate executives gathered last week at breakfast to celebrate 30 years in the business. The original pancake house in Toluca Lake is now another restaurant, so they met at a franchise in Panorama City.

It was a quiet party. Al Lapin, who isn’t involved with the company anymore, couldn’t make it because he was traveling. The corporation’s mascots--6-foot-tall, talking pancakes named Miss Strawberry and Miss Blueberry--weren’t even invited.

But the president of the corporation gave a short speech as champagne was poured. Representatives of Assemblyman Tom Bane (D-Tarzana) and Councilman Ernani Bernardi presented plaques and certificates. And a city official announced that Mayor Tom Bradley had proclaimed “International House of Pancakes Day” in Los Angeles.

MacPherson, a small and blockish man who wears thick gold rings and bracelets, thought back on his life with pancakes.

“I’ll probably die with this company,” he said.

The corporation also used the occasion to advertise a new pancake. A sign on the wall at the Panorama City restaurant read, “Try our delicious new almond, walnut, multigrain, honey, buttermilk and brown sugar pancakes.”

Samples of these were handed out.

“I don’t eat breakfast,” one of the franchise owners complained.

Most of the pancakes on the menu are still made from chef Pete Marsoobian’s original recipes. Back then, Lapin tried to model his restaurant after a chain of breakfast places called Uncle John’s, according to corporate executives. He enlisted the help of his brother and his mother, who acted as purchasing agent.

The blue roof and odd interior decor were added because Lapin wanted his restaurant to stand out from a Bob’s Big Boy across the street.

“Everybody looks for the blue roof,” said Albert Schwartz, who worked for Lapin as a manager and now owns a franchise in Encino. “It’s a landmark.”

Over the years, few pancakes have been added to International House of Pancakes’ repertoire; a larger number have been dropped from the menu. Some, like the Iowa Corn, were popular in only certain parts of the country. Others--like the Tahitian and the Kauai--required exotic ingredients.

“You can’t get any of those today,” Schwartz said. “They cost too much to make.”

New franchises are also abandoning the 1950s kitsch for natural wood and pastel blue interiors. Roofs on new restaurants are still blue, but less extravagant--peaked roofs waste heat.

Schwartz figures a lot of things have changed since 1958. In those days, you could walk into a pancake house and buy a syrup-covered stack for 80 cents.

“Yesterday,” he said, “I paid seven and a half dollars to get my car washed.”