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San Clemente Journal

Working at Denny’s ... In the 1960s

Jul 13, 2020 11:16AM ● By Mike Chamberlin
by Mike Chamberlin

Every time I drive by the San Clemente Denny’s on Pico I think back to a time in my life, long, long ago… 

In 1965 I was a junior at the brand-new San Clemente High School, and to afford my surfing lifestyle, I took a job as a dishwasher at Denny’s. To be clear, there are five levels of employment there. The lowest form is dishwasher, then bus boy, then server, followed by cooks and managers. Therefore … I had nowhere to go but up. 

Mike Chamberlin in 1966.

 At peak time you could hardly keep up with the dishes and I found it was easier to break a dish than to wash it, which I did more than once. I literally worked my way up the food chain while there, and when an opening for bus boy was offered …perfect! I no longer had to wash the dishes, I simply deposited them to the next poor fool on the dish washing line. 

Then, at 17 years of age, my big break came. An opening for a cook! My cooking experience at that time was making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but I applied and got the job. Heck … I was half-way to management now!

My first chore was to starch that chef’s hat. With the help of my mom, we would stretch the cloth hat over a large Folgers coffee can and attack it with a can of spray starch. The rest was pretty much on-the-job training, learn as you go. 

You start out small, making salads, measuring meats for sandwiches and prepping plates. Then the day comes when they hand you the spatula and you take on THE GRILL. You get to the point where you can flip hamburgers in your sleep. But eggs … that’s a whole different story. Flipping eggs is an art. And with practice I mastered the art of egg-flipping, never quite sure where the line between over easy and over medium was. My family is still impressed with my egg flipping skills to this day.

The bad news is when you start out as a cook at Denny’s you are assigned the overnight shift, 11pm to 7am. The first thing you learn about the overnight shift is cooking for the bar crowd. When the bars close, Denny’s goes into high gear. You can’t cook cheeseburgers fast enough, and as the overnight cook, you are also the overnight manager and you spend half your night cooking and the other half breaking up fights between inebriated customers. The good news is that by 4am the bar crowd is long gone, and I worked a deal with the waitresses to wake me up from slumbering in one of the back booths if an order came in. Sometimes I could get two hours of shut eye, until the early morning breakfast crowd showed up and hamburgers were replaced by omelets. 

Looking back, I can see that it’s our early jobs that really pave the way for the rest of our lives. You learn people skills, job behavior and responsibility. You also learn a valuable lesson in promptness. And whether it be the hungry travelers grabbing a bite to eat on their way between Los Angeles and San Diego, the San Clemente High School students stopping by after school or football games for French fries and a Coke, or a steady stream of U.S. Marines on leave from Camp Pendleton, working at Denny’s exposes you to a wide array of people.

Since the San Clemente Denny’s opened in 1964, I calculated they may have had, at any given time, about 30 employees, many part-time. With a high turnover rate, over the last 56 years roughly 2,000 or more people may have been employed at this local restaurant.

That job at Denny’s served me well all through high school. Shortly after graduating I was drafted into the U.S Army. After boot camp I was about to be shipped out to Vietnam. Somewhere my orders got lost and they didn’t know what to do with me. A sergeant asked me what job skills I had, and I told him I was a cook at Denny’s. Good enough … the Army made me a cook and I shipped out with the 9th Infantry Division to Vietnam. 

I’m not sure if there is a moral to this story, however, I do know every yesterday led to today and I’m thankful for the time I spent at our San Clemente Denny’s. You know the one - where the electronic sign next to the freeway never seems to spell the name right!