Dishing up a spicy tradition

The Loguercio family has seen good times and bad from behind the 24-seat counter at Chili John’s in Burbank since 1990. They say they are better people for the experience, but with rising food costs and the loss of a patriarch, the family faces a big decision deadline that has come and gone.

Debra Loguercio and her 22-year old son, Alec Loguercio, have been working full time keeping the burners lit for several years since the real passion behind Chili John’s, Debra’s husband, Gene Loguercio, became ill and lost a tough battle with pancreatic cancer.

The mother-and-son team promised Gene as his health was failing that they would run the restaurant for two years before deciding whether to keep it, and the two-year anniversary of Gene’s death was April 13.

Debra Loguercio said she is grateful that Chili John’s supported their whole extended family since 1990, and another family 45 years before that.

“Oh, I’m not ready to go there yet, but it wouldn’t be a matter of selling it. We would decide which family member would take it,” she said, but admitted it would be hard to say goodbye after all the wonderful memories of working with her husband and her mother-in-law while watching her children develop in one of the oldest restaurants in Burbank.

“Dad getting cancer forced Alec to grow up,” said Alec’s 27-year-old brother, Anthony Logurecio, who works full time as an aeronautic welder for Gardner Bellos. “There was nobody else to step up and fill Dad’s big shoes. This isn’t a simple 9-to-5 job — the restaurant has a way of showing you what kind of person you are.”

Alec Loguercio, who has worked in the restaurant since he was 15, was forced to drop out of college and take over the cooking and business operations of Chili John’s when his father became ill.

“It was kind of like going to two colleges, Alec said as he carefully measured the ingredients for the chili, using the same recipe his father taught him. “Spending time here on Saturdays in the business environment made me a better person. I had to get over being shy. I remember when I was young, Dad used to drag me out in front to talk to the old-timers — it developed my personality, giving me more confidence.”

Stephanie Volpe, a cousin who worked in the restaurant through her teens and early 20s, said it’s important to her to continue the tradition of building character and a strong work ethic with her own two children, who now work in the restaurant on the weekends, washing dishes.

“Sure it’s tough working with family sometimes,” she said. “We get angry at each other, but you learn to just work through it. You can’t fire your family, nor can you quit because they keep bringing you back.”

Anthony Loguercio said he learned the value of a dollar and how important it is to have a commitment to the customers, who come from every walk of life.

“I learned from my parents’ teamwork,” he said. “In our universe, Dad was the sun with the planets, but Mom was everything else you don’t necessarily see, like gravity and oxygen.”

The whole family agrees the best thing about Chili John’s are the customers, who started out being predominately from Lockheed. Over the years, that shifted to people from the Burbank television and recording studios.

Volpe reminisced about some of the old-timers who would come in every week — like actors Tom Bosley and James Garner.

“Tom was like a father figure,” she said. “We would talk about everything except what he did, just like family. We have the neatest, most creative, brilliant and funny set of customers you could imagine. They are our family. They laugh with us and they cry with us.”

Greg Dalton, a local musician, has been dropping by weekly for many years.

“It’s like a ‘Cheers’ atmosphere in here, where everybody knows your name and the chili is great,” he said. “I miss Gene a lot, but Alec is so much like him, it’s like he’s still around.”

“I know my dad would be really proud of Alec,” Anthony said.

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