The first thing you notice is the giant sign perched on the roof.
"EAT," it commands.
Crazy Otto's Diner is that kind of place. Tucked between Sierra Highway and the Southern Pacific railroad tracks, this Antelope Valley eatery is known for generous servings and a curious ambience, especially the chronic tremors of passing freight trains. Three came by at lunch the other day. The biggest, I'd say, felt like a 3.9.
Crazy Otto's has worked hard to be a local legend. It has, for example, sued a competitor for allegedly stealing recipes for hash browns and chili. Like any landmark, it sells its own postcards. The souvenir commemorates the historic date of June 12, 1993, when Crazy Otto's cooked up a 19,000-egg omelet, which the Guinness people certified as "the world's largest." Such records are difficult to confirm. But at 1,364 square feet, this entree should have included at least two bedrooms and a bath.
Now another rendezvous with destiny is approaching. On June 14--that's right, just two days after the Omelet Anniversary--this diner will serve up its last supper al freight. Crazy Otto's is being forced out, an unlikely casualty of the political aftershocks of the Northridge earthquake.
But don't shed tears for Crazy Otto's. A victim it isn't. To hear proprietor Scott Tranter, Crazy Otto's isn't just fighting the good fight. It's winning. Come June 17, it will move two miles west, taking over the building on the 20th Street West site now occupied by Dilligafs, another diner owned by Tranter. Alas, there is no railroad next door.
In Tranter's telling, Crazy Otto's is the hero in a potboiler that involves the Southern Pacific, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and Lancaster City Hall. The struggle to save Crazy Otto's turned Tranter into a political propagandist. He isn't so bold as to claim that the Crazy Otto's controversy cost Mayor Arnie Rodio his reelection. But Rodio's defeat, he adds, "didn't really break my heart."
It's a complicated tale. Understand, first, that when Tranter and his father-in-law, Donald Whitbeck, purchased Crazy Otto's in 1989, they bought a business located on Southern Pacific land. Three years later, when Southern Pacific sold part of the adjoining right-of-way to the MTA for the ultimate extension of Metrolink, officials assured Tranter that the commuter rail wouldn't reach that far "until after the turn of the century."
But on Jan. 17, that all changed. Broken freeways created an urgent demand for rail service between the Antelope Valley and the area known in these parts as "down below." An interim rail service was initiated and MTA officials, eyeing an unexpected bonanza of federal disaster money, gave Crazy Otto's and neighboring businesses 90 days to vacate.
The law, of course, requires Metrolink to compensate the business owners at fair market value--but value, of course, fluctuates with the economy. Metrolink's first offer for Crazy Otto's was about half the purchase price in 1989--and $90,000 less than money still owed. That's when the worries really started.
Nor did it help that City Hall didn't seem to care. When it looked as though Metrolink would be satisfied if Crazy Otto's simply remodeled its backside, Tranter says, City Hall refused to issue building permits. His suspicion is that city officials wanted them out to make way for the planned widening of Sierra Highway--and they were happy to have Metrolink foot the bill.
It was then that war was declared. "SAVE CRAZY OTTO'S DINER," the flyer proclaimed. First it tugs at the heartstrings, suggesting that many longtime employees, "the same people you have come to know and love," would lose their jobs. Then it goes for the political jugular.
"We bought a business. In the name of progress, Metrolink is kicking us out and buying the building. There is no compensation for loss of business goodwill and no consideration for employee severance. With a large mortgage that must be paid off first, we may not be left with any funds to use for rebuilding or relocation. The Lancaster City Council has not even bothered to communicate with us. They have offered no support or assistance of any kind. Costco was offered a new building and money to move. PetsMart was offered $180,000 and free rent. And the saga continues. We've all heard the horror stories. Now Crazy Otto's. . . has been sentenced to death with no reprieve."
Then comes a sales pitch--an appeal for customers to help out in the crisis by purchasing gift certificates that could be redeemed at the new Crazy Otto's location, or would be refunded "if, for some reason, we are prevented from reopening."
Observers of Lancaster politics may admire the way Crazy Otto's made no mention of Mayor Rodio, yet scored a direct hit on the man who had become a lightning rod of complaints over redevelopment policies. Truth is, Crazy Otto's was miffed that he ignored the world's largest omelet. If Gov. Wilson and the Palmdale mayor were impressed enough to send letters and issue proclamations, why not Lancaster's very own mayor?
Since that first flyer appeared, much has changed, all to the benefit of Crazy Otto's. The MTA has come up with an offer that would enable Crazy Otto's to pay off its mortgage and cover its move. Meanwhile, hundreds of customers have rallied to the cause, buying more than $7,000 worth of gift certificates. (Mayor Rodio, it seems, offered some sweet talk, but Tranter would have none of it.)
The only people who may lose jobs, Tranter says, are the part-timers who staff Dilligafs. Judging by Tranter's smile, the crisis has passed.
Of that I'm not so sure. How can the new joint duplicate the original?
If you happen to be at the new Crazy Otto's and the place starts to shake, don't forget to duck for cover.
Scott Harris' column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. Readers may write to Harris at the Times Valley Edition, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth, Ca. 91311.