Diner JoAnn Chiles snatched a paper napkin off the table at Clifton's Cafeteria in West Covina. "This one's mine," she said, burying it in her purse.
The napkin would be her souvenir of the San Gabriel Valley's Clifton's, which will close today after 45 years.
The owners blame slow sales for the closing of the West Covina location -- known as Clifton's Greenery for its garden theme -- which was the last of the suburban Clifton's Cafeterias.
Now Clifton's Brookdale Cafeteria, at Broadway and 6th Street in downtown Los Angeles, is the last in a chain that once had eight locations and was known for its traditional, home-style American fare. As recently as two years ago, the West Covina location served 20,000 customers a month. It recently has been serving 16,000 and the average check has been $8, according to the owners.
"We tried everything," said the manager, Nestor Armendariz. "We cut hours, labor, food, but it wasn't enough."
Like most of the cafeteria's other longtime patrons, Chiles and her sons were disappointed.
"We're heartbroken that it's going to close down," Chiles, 49, said at lunchtime Monday.
Her mother first took her to the West Covina Clifton's, she said, and she has been taking her two sons.
"It's the quality of the food; it's the homeyness," her son, John Navarro, 19, said as he slowly finished his turkey lunch. "There's a soul to the place."
Clifford Clinton opened his first cafeteria in 1931 on Olive Street in downtown Los Angeles. He combined part of his first and last names and called the place Clifton's.More locations followed, including the Clifton's Brookdale in 1935. The chain expanded from the 1950s to the 1980s, with locations from Laguna Hills to Century City.
Jean Clinton Roeschlaub, 80, her brother Donald Clinton, 77, and his son Robert Clinton, 49, who now run the business, said locations were gradually shut down as leases expired and sales declined.
"Cafeterias are a little out of fashion," Robert Clinton said.
His father agreed, noting that the word "cafeteria" does not inspire culinary delight.
"There's a negative stigma with the word 'cafeteria,' " he said sitting in his office above Clifton's Brookdale. "All-you-can-eat places have hurt as well."
Some members of the San Gabriel Valley clientele said they might try buffet restaurants, such as the Hometown Buffet.
"We'll have to get used to the food," said Jenni Morales, 84, who, with her husband Joe, has been a Clifton's customer for about 50 years. On Monday, they were having lunch with their great-grandson.
"You can't beat this food," said Joe Morales, 84, who disagreed with the negative associations of the word "cafeteria." "This is not hospital food."
The owners said they were proud of their homemade fare.
"There are many generations that have grown up eating at Clifton's and we want to keep the quality of the food because that's what they expect," Robert Clinton said.
Now, the Clintons hope their downtown venue will attract new customers with the influx of city residents.
The West Covina employees were offered jobs at Brookdale, but only about five of 40 accepted. Many declined because of the inconvenience of getting downtown. The Clintons said they had deliberated for two years over closing the San Gabriel store, but had decided against rethinking the formula.
Robert Clinton said: "Maybe it will be better to be one of the few remaining cafeterias, rather than a mediocre restaurant."