Column: VIP’s Cafe, John Wooden’s favorite diner, aims to get back in the game after shutdown
When VIP’s Cafe was forced to close its doors indefinitely March 16 after Los Angeles ordered restaurants to halt dine-in service, it was the first time the popular restaurant would be closed for breakfast since John Wooden’s memorial service nearly a decade earlier.
Wooden became a daily fixture at the diner over the years. He would arrive at the same time, sit at the same booth, order the same breakfast and see the same friendly faces each morning. When Wooden died on June 4, 2010, VIP’s owner Paul Ma knew he couldn’t ask any of his employees to come to work on the day their most loyal customer was going to be memorialized.
“We have only been closed one day over the last 22 years and that was for Coach Wooden,” Ma said. “We closed because our entire staff loved Coach. I really couldn’t decide who could go to the memorial and who had to come to work that day so we just shut down because we all love Coach so much.”
I’ve known Ma for the majority of his time as the owner of the Tarzana diner. My parents used to work on the fifth floor of the office building above it and we would often come in for breakfast. I first remember seeing Wooden sitting at Table No. 2 around 8 a.m. 20 years ago. He was having what I would later find out was the same breakfast he had every morning — two eggs over easy, two brittle strips of bacon, a toasted English muffin with butter and strawberry jelly and a cup of hot tea with honey.
After a week of seeing him every morning, I finally mustered up the courage to talk to him one morning. I asked him if he had any breakfast recommendations. He smiled and without looking at the menu said, “I like the No. 1 which is two eggs, two hotcakes and two slices of bacon or sausage. They also have the No. 2 which is two eggs, two slices of bacon or sausage with a choice of toast or biscuit and gravy. I usually get one of those two.”
Wooden became a familiar and friendly face over time and seemed at home when he came into the diner. He talked to the same waitresses, the same customers sitting at the counter and Ma and his wife, Lucy, who always made sure his booth was ready for him every morning while pretending as if they hadn’t reserved it for him because Wooden didn’t want any preferential treatment.
“It’s great. Some of the people I’ve known for about a dozen years and I see them every day,” Wooden once told me. “It’s the only place I see them. We’ve become very friendly and close to each other and it’s just like home. It has a homey atmosphere and I like that. I’ve been going there for a dozen years, seven days a week.”
My parents moved out of the office building above the diner soon after Wooden died, but I would still regularly go there for breakfast with my brother. We would try to sit at Table No. 2, which had a reserved plaque above it that read, “Coach Wooden’s Favorite Booth,” and order the No. 2 breakfast special Wooden always ordered, which was called the “Coach Wooden Special.”
When Ma closed his doors March 16, 22 years to the day he opened the diner, he wasn’t sure if he would ever be able to open them again.
On the 10-year anniversary of his death, UCLA basketball coach John Wooden remains a legendary figure to so many, especially his family.
“I was very desperate,” Ma said. “We applied for the [Paycheck Protection Program] loan but the money was gone in the first round. I didn’t know how I could make it. How was I going to pay rent and the utilities? I could not sleep. I woke up in the middle of the night. It was very hard. You don’t see any future.”
Ma saw his employees at the restaurant on March 16 and gave them their last paychecks and distributed whatever food he had in the restaurant to them but wasn’t sure when he would see them again. Though he was able to provide takeout and delivery service, he said that model wasn’t sustainable for a diner, which represented so much more than the food and drinks on the menu.
“A coffee shop is different because for the regulars, this is their social life,” Ma said. “They want to have a cup of coffee, talk with their friends, read the newspaper at the counter and it’s how they start their day so the food for them is not the most important thing.”
Two months into the city’s stay-at-home order, Ma came close to losing the diner he had spent over two decades building and had become synonymous with Wooden and UCLA basketball. It not only became a place for Wooden to reunite with former players and rivals, but every UCLA men’s basketball coach from Steve Lavin and Ben Howland to Steve Alford and Mick Cronin made a pilgrimage there for breakfast soon after getting the job.
Ma had not been able to obtain a loan from the government and was having difficulty paying rent by mid-May. Around this time, Ryan Hagen, a regular customer, started a GoFundMe page for his favorite diner and reached out to other regulars. The page was able to raise over $11,000 in two weeks with Cronin donating $2,500, Wooden’s family donating $1,000 and others with UCLA ties donating money.
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Ma became emotional as he recalled Maxine, a regular customer in her 80s, mailing him a check for $2,000, and Linda, another regular customer, dropping off a check for $300 in an envelope that read, “In memory of Coach.”
“I didn’t know we had this much love from the community,” Ma said. “It was touching. I didn’t have much confidence in the future because I just didn’t know what would happen but the community has really helped and I feel more confidence to carry on.”
Soon after the GoFundMe page started, Ma started offering takeout service from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., finally received the loan he had been waiting for and limited dine-in service was allowed to resume. After a difficult three months, there is finally a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.
As Ma placed tape over the seats at the counter and over every other table inside VIP’s to follow social distancing guidelines, he made sure Table No. 2 was open to customers who wanted to sit in Wooden’s favorite booth.
“I think about Coach every day,” Ma said. “I can’t believe he has been gone for 10 years. Every day when I close the door, I look at his picture on the wall and I say goodbye to Coach. He’s still helping me.”
It’s been 10 years since the death of UCLA basketball coach John Wooden and we still miss his simplicity and grace, writes columnist Bill Plaschke.
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