SUNLAND : Owners Hope to Save Sterling’s From Razing

Sterling’s, a landmark restaurant and one of the key meeting places in the mountain community of Sunland, may have to be torn down because of earthquake damage. But its owners are doing their best to save it.

“I’ve sent letters to everyone I can think of,” said Al Jesensky, co-owner of the restaurant, which opened in 1938 and specializes in pan-fried chicken and steaks.

Ben Caputo is the other co-owner of the restaurant, which has been closed since the Northridge earthquake.

“We were starting to make a comeback when Jan. 17 hit,” Jesensky said.


He said business had dropped off in recent years, mainly because Lockheed Corp. has pulled most of its operations out of Burbank, taking many big dinners and banquet functions with it.

When the Jan. 17 quake buckled floors, cracked walls and separated the walk-in freezer and refrigerator from the walls, the restaurant was in default on a loan from the Small Business Administration. That is why SBA officials turned down their loan application, even though Sterling’s sustained $300,000 in quake damage, Jesensky said.

“We’re saying that if we had a second chance we could pay both off,” Jesensky said.

If the restaurant could reopen in time for the Christmas season, it would have a better chance of survival, he said.


However, a tougher deadline looms over the owners’ heads. On July 1, the Los Angeles City Department of Building and Safety issued a notice giving Sterling’s 90 days to be repaired. If the restaurant does not comply with the order by the end of September, it could be torn down.

Jesensky said he needs more time because he is trying to appeal the SBA’s denial of his loan. But, he said, city officials will not consider an extension of that deadline until the 90 days have elapsed.

Hoping to use public sentiment to sway the officials, Sterling’s started a petition drive two weeks ago. Petitions will be presented to city officials in September to ask for help in sparing the restaurant.

Sterling’s supporters also have contacted Councilman Joel Wachs and state Assemblyman Bill Hoge (R-Pasadena) to ask for help. Jesensky said he has written to a variety of federal officials--including President Bill Clinton--to no avail.


“This is so frustrating because on the whole, FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the SBA have been relatively good in helping us with most of the people who contact us with a problem,” said Arline DeSanctis, Wachs’ chief field deputy.

Usually, Wachs’ office has resolved problems by working out communications problems between loan applicants and state and federal officials, she said. In this case, Wachs has written James Lee Witt, FEMA’s director, a letter dated Aug. 8 to ask him to investigate the matter. Witt has not yet responded to the request, DeSanctis said.

“We’ve had many letters from people in the community about this,” DeSanctis said, adding that local chambers of commerce had been appealing for help to save the restaurant.

“The community has felt they have suffered a great loss,” said DeSanctis, adding that she also liked the restaurant.


“I thought it was delightful,” she said. “It sort of reflected the rural atmosphere of Sunland-Tujunga.”

But it was also a central part of life in this community.

“It’s probably the only meeting place where you can have banquets and meetings in town,” said Jim Mertzel, the former head of the Sunland-Tujunga Coordinating Council. “When something has been there as long as that I guess it does have sentimental value.”