It’s four hours into Ruthie Krocker’s morning shift at Norms in West Hollywood and the seasoned 70-year-old waitress seems to have sprouted tentacles. One arm is picking up a carafe of coffee, the other is clearing a plate of pancakes, another arm drops a check and another wipes down the counter.
There’s a rhythm, a chaos and a crushing tempo to the morning shift that Krocker has come to love in her 44 years as a waitress at the longtime diner. The grease stink of the griddle, covered in a jigsaw puzzle of hash browns and bacon. Hurried scoops of butter onto waiting stacks of pancakes. The camaraderie with the regulars who fill the entrance, waiting for a seat in her section.
The name tag affixed to her blouse reads “Mama Ruthie.” On this morning, Krocker’s tight curls of jet-black hair frame a round face with eyes that smile behind bedazzled rhinestone glasses. This is the face you want to see first thing in the morning.
“I’ve been coming here for 22 years,” actor Peter Stormare, 66, seated at the counter, said during one of his weekly breakfasts of three eggs, home fries and four strips of bacon. “It’s pretty much always the same here and I think that’s what people like about Norms.”
For the record:
10:21 AM, Jan. 31, 2020A previous version of this article said there are 19 Norms locations. There are 20. Also, the test kitchen is in Bellflower, not Lawndale. The story also said CapitalSpring bought Norms six years ago. The sale was in December 2014. The story also said Norms has been benefiting from the company’s international purchasing arrangements; it is only using its domestic purchasing power. It also said CapitalSpring had bought stakes in restaurant chains such as Denny’s; it invested in franchises of the brands.
For its first 65 years, Norms was a family business founded and run by Norm Roybark, who opened the first location in Hollywood in 1949. Over time, the chain became part of the collective Angeleno culinary consciousness, today with 20 locations all in Southern California, each built in a futuristic Googie style punctuated with Norms’ distinctive sawtooth pennant sign.
The expected familiarity, reliability and consistency are among the reasons Norms has cultivated a loyal fan base of regular diners at its tables and lifers on its payroll. It’s a recipe the company’s new owners hope to replicate as part of a major expansion plan currently underway for the venerable chain.
Five years ago, the Roybarks sold the Bellflower company to CapitalSpring, an investment firm that has invested in franchises of restaurant chains including Denny’s, Coco’s, Taco Bell and Hardee’s. After the sale, some longtime customers fretted that the quality of the food might decline or prices might rise. Instead, things seem to have remained largely unchanged, and now the new owners appear to be doubling down on the Norm-ness of Norms.
“It’s a very fine line when you take over a heritage brand that was doing pretty well,” Norms Chief Executive Mike Colonna said. “We always felt we could make Norms better, but the term I used is evolution, not revolution.”
Part of that plan involves rapidly expanding the company’s footprint. When Norms was sold in 2014, there were 17 restaurants. Two more opened in 2018, in El Monte and Carson, and another last year in Inglewood. This year will see the biggest growth in the company’s history with new locations slated for Encino, Rialto, Northridge, Ontario Mills at the Mall and Hollywood.
“We could not have expanded before because the former ownership was Norm’s children and his wife,” said Jerry O’Connell, the company’s vice president of operations and a Norms employee since 1979. “They were somewhat conservative and didn’t want to go into debt.”
The company is in the process of submitting letters of intent to bring Norms to downtown Long Beach, Chino Hills, Santa Monica and Pasadena, and plans to open at least 10 other restaurants in Southern California in the near future, according to Colonna.
And down the road, Norms might find its way to other states.
“There’s no reason why this couldn’t be very successful in Arizona or anywhere else,” O’Connell said.
Norms traffics in a classic diner experience that smacks of post-World War II Americana.
The meatloaf, served under thick, glossy gravy with two slices of bacon, comes with soup, salad, vegetables and your choice of mashed or baked potato. At $11.49, you don’t have to be a returning G.I. to know that’s a value.
There are some 150 different items on the expansive shiny menu, with sections devoted to burgers, steak dinners and fish. The bestselling item, the Bigger Better Breakfast, is a behemoth of a meal: two eggs any way, ham, two strips of bacon, two links of sausage, hash browns and a choice of hotcakes or toast. It will set you back $8.99.
This classic meatloaf is sliced and griddled at Norms, which gives it crusty edges.
David Cox, vice president of food and beverage at Norms, said he tries to improve the menu where and when he can, without fracturing the Norms that many Angelenos hold in their memories.
“It’s about keeping it comfortable enough where customers might want to take a chance,” Cox said.
To that end, Cox said he and his team are constantly trying out new dishes, using the Norms in Bellflower as a test kitchen. It typically takes about six months for something new, such as chicken fingers with Sriracha honey and waffles or a chorizo breakfast burrito, to make it onto the menu, and a staff majority vote is needed to take something off.
“People come to Norms pretty much knowing what they want to have,” O’Connell said, adding, “We don’t want to be cutting-edge.
“The Sriracha honey chicken and waffles is really just to tell the world that we’re not asleep.”
Since coming under new ownership, Norms has been tapping into CapitalSpring’s purchasing arrangements to buy goods in bulk at lower prices and to pay less for services like credit card fees, Colonna said.
“We run the company lean and mean,” he said. “We don’t have tremendous overhead. Our offices are in Bellflower. We’re not in Beverly Hills.”
That strategy appears to be paying off. On CapitalSpring’s website, Colonna is quoted as saying that with the investment firm’s involvement, Norms has “doubled our profitability.”
Not all of the changes have gone over well with Krocker, who retired in January. Before leaving, she said things feel more corporate at Norms these days.
“The old owners, they really cared about their employees,” Krocker said. “The new owners, I don’t really know them well because they just started, but it’s a lot of changes.”
But Krocker, who met her husband of 32 years at the restaurant, said she loves the job.
“Everybody is happy here,” she said. “You can come and leave your problems at home.”