Jack Kern is in his customary spot: at the counter of the last White Spot restaurant.
He has been one of the faithful for so long that he forgets when it all started. Eight years ago, maybe? At first he came in for a cup of coffee, but he soon discovered he craved something else entirely. "You want people," he says. "You want the regulars."
Jack makes his regular appearance most afternoons between two and four, when he sits at the counter, drinking coffee and talking with "a couple of fellas, one works in a dry cleaner's, or another fella, he drives here twice a day all the way from Centennial airport, or Eric."
That Eric and Jack know each other's first names indicates an almost unheard-of intimacy in a place where people spend decades together without getting past the point of "hey, fella." But then, Eric and Jack share some crucial common ground: Both are lifelong bachelors, both hate to cook--and both consider White Spot home.
Right now, Jack and Eric are winding up a thirty-minute discussion of the intricacies of coin-op laundry procedure. When Eric leaves, Jack looks contentedly over the thinned-out crowd. Three waitresses and two managers are on duty this afternoon, but most, like the customers, are smoking or reading the paper or chatting. Jack knows all of their faces, but none of their names.
He does not find it unusual that no one in this restaurant is eating.
"Oh, the food is good," he hastens to add, but does not elaborate except to say that White Spot food, while in no way different from that at Denny's or Azar's, is better. "The Mexican platter," he finally offers. "My lands, yes, I do enjoy that."
But his healthy respect for the Mexican platter is not what keeps Jack coming back for more. "I set and I talk," he explains, "and it's not necessarily that we all share things in common, but it's interesting. A few people tell a fish story, maybe, but so do I. At election time, I might argue. But even when I'm hot under the collar, I'm learning something."
And even if he's alone at the counter, reading the paper, he's happy to be at White Spot.
"My lands, yes," he says. "Hours can go by sitting at a counter drinking coffee. And I've noticed something. A lot of people don't do that anymore."
Clearly. Because this White Spot at 800 Broadway, a classic example of the California Coffee Shop school of architecture and once the flagship of a fleet that numbered nine busy restaurants, is now the last one left--and it's not crowded. But its following is fanatical.
"And friendly." Jack is still sipping and thinking. "Is it ever. Say. If you don't like that type of atmosphere, why, I'll try and argue with you."
In 1946 William F. Clements gave birth to the first White Spot, and his wife, Ruby, gave birth to their son.
Tony Clements has been at your service ever since.
"I worked the cash register, washed dishes, I was a busboy," he recalls. "It didn't seem like it came any easier to me because I was the boss's son. Actually, I worked harder than anyone."
But his position had its perks. For example, Tony was the only kid in his Denver elementary school class who knew Colonel Sanders personally.
"My father met the Colonel on a cruise to Hawaii," Tony says. Soon after, William F. bought into a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise and also began selling fried chicken dinners at his White Spot restaurants. "And the Colonel would stop here on his tours around the country," Tony remembers. "He'd stay at our house and sleep in my bed. He was a pretty imposing character, kind of like Santa Claus. My sister and I called him the Old Medicine Man. He would drive around to all his outlets and fry up a bunch of chicken for the customers."
Although William F. admired the Colonel's style, not to mention his company as a house guest, he was a different sort of restaurateur altogether. "He was not the type to go back in the kitchen and stir up a pot of gumbo," Tony says of his father. "He was a mover, a shaker, a hustler."
William F. had grown up in Louisville, the son of an emigrant father who had escaped Yugoslavia disguised as a woman. Settled in Colorado, the Clements family made their living as bakers, supplying restaurants along Denver's 15th Street as well as Lowry Air Force Base. But this beat appears to have been a bit far from the action for William F., who wanted a 24-hour short-order place of his own. He finally got it in 1946, when he opened the first White Spot in a storefront at 22 South Broadway.
The original White Spot is now a Mexican place called Oscar's, and before that it was a Reese Coffee Shop, "but boy," says Tony, "there hasn't been anything changed in that place for years. I'd go in there and see the pieces of old plywood my father nailed over the ceiling."
Nothing that shabby was in evidence at White Spot's grand opening, however. In fifty-year-old pictures the place gleams like a white nightlife oasis, complete with a raised U-shaped counter and a waitress in a Florence Nightingale hat. Still, the whole proposition set William F. back less than four grand, "because he built all the dinettes himself, in the basement, and my mother did all the upholstery," Tony says. "They did it to save money. Our house was always full of restaurant equipment and supplies. I was ten before anyone ever parked a car in the garage."
By then, William F. was on a roll, having expanded within two years of the first White Spot opening. His second eatery was a drive-in at 2000 South Broadway, after which he built three more White Spots. His basic menu of solid, quick American food was catching on.
"People were not gourmets back then," Tony explains. "Everything was made from scratch, and the recipes were as basic as the Joy of Cooking." And just as unmemorable: The only item Tony can recall from the original White Spot is "probably doughnuts, but I'm not sure."
If a restaurant wasn't working--whether because of the doughnuts, the location, or kismet--William F. got rid of it, sometimes selling out to an employee. He liked to keep moving.
"He bought and sold thirty restaurants in his time, most of them White Spots, but including pizza places, bar-lounges and the Kentucky Fried Chicken," Tony says. "And still, he managed to avoid the day-to-day operations of his restaurants pretty well. He always had managers and assistant managers and he went to California two or three times a year, just like you'd go to Paris if you were into gourmet food."
Sometimes Tony went along for the ride. He remembers driving around the West Coast with architect Lou Armet, inventor of the California Coffee Shop style, looking closely at shingles, steam tables and industrial carpeting. In 1961, when William F. built the White Spot at 800 Broadway, he hired Armet to design it.
The result was soaring cement roof lines, huge plate-glass windows, and yard upon yard of Naugahyde--an updated, state-of-the-art diner for a new decade.
"You should have seen it," Tony says. "Real carnival colors, hot pink and purple. It was psychedelic, almost."
By the mid-Sixties Tony was in a position to appreciate that era's coloration, and he spent a few rebel years as a ski bum in Aspen. But then he returned home and signed up for the University of Denver's School of Hotel and Restaurant Management. When he wasn't studying, he worked as night manager at the White Spot at East Colfax and Pearl.
"Oh, what a show that place was," Tony says. "It got to be like doing business in Beirut. It was open all night, like all the White Spots. The waitresses would come back and tell me things about the customers, who were strippers at Sid King's, or working girls, or hippies, or whatever."
Looking back, though, it strikes him as a particularly innocent wild bunch. "I tell you," he says, "I'd trade you two crack addicts for a hippie any day."
But in the late Sixties, those hippies suddenly thrust White Spot into the spotlight of a national controversy: whether restaurants had to serve customers regardless of their appearance.
In February 1969, a 21-year-old printer from Littleton sued White Spot for $500 in damages, claiming he'd been refused service because he had long hair. The local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union jumped into the fray. White Spot's attorney, Dale Tooley, was not cowed. Being banned for hair length was not analogous to racial discrimination, he told a Denver judge, who upheld White Spot's right to demand that its customers be clean-cut.
"We do make it a rule not to serve people who are objectionable to our other customers," a White Spot operations manager told the Denver Post. "You wouldn't want some long-haired, dirty hippie sitting next to you."
The long-haired hippie who'd brought the suit persevered, but the Colorado Supreme Court shot him down in no uncertain terms. According to Judge L. Paul Weadick: "No one would want to eat dinner in an atmosphere of barefooted, semi-dressed, disheveled, unwashed people who throw food about at each other and on the floor and who generally conduct themselves in an atmosphere not conducive to comfortable, restful, relaxed, eating. Good food, well-prepared, well-served, in good surroundings, is the savior of many of us."
Obviously he did not agree with the White Spot pickets who'd told the press that "our dress, hair and life-style are not prepackaged, homogenized and plastic like their formica food."
"Can you believe they took hair that seriously?" asks Tony, whose own gray locks are collar-length and who has just walked past a customer whose hair is styled in the Elvis-in-Vegas model.
Only 22 himself at the time of the dispute, Tony had more on his mind than hair. That spring, only two weeks after Tony graduated from the University of Denver, his father died suddenly when simple esophagus surgery went awry.
"When he passed away," Tony recalls, "there were two restaurants under construction and six running. We had 300 employees. My mother and I became partners and I was in charge of basic operations." (His older sister, who had married a serviceman, no longer lived in the state.)
With young Tony at the helm, White Spot began catering to a cooler crowd. One vintage Sixties advertisement, featuring a young couple in Carnaby Street regalia, spouted this copy: "Swinging night people know that White Spot is the `in' place to end an evening. White Spot has it, whether you dig a super dooper Chocolate Sundae for only 55 cents or turn on to a Choice Sirloin Steak breakfast."
Times were heady. "Everybody but everybody eats at White Spot," according to the slogan that sprawled across the bottom of the newspaper comic pages each day. Denver Post writer Barry Morrison peppered his "Denver After Dark" column with plugs for the place.
From one New Year's Eve roundup: "Why not a beddie-bye snack at one of the nine White Spots so that you'll feel less unglued in the morning?" Another Seventies item: "White Spot has been named for their Chuck-O-Melt sandwich in the magazine Cooking for Profit, sharing billing with the Waldorf Astoria."
"We were lucky in a lot of ways," Tony says. "We only had three or four holdups in all those years, and one was with a squirt gun."
One night near the White Spot at Colfax and Harrison, an elderly man approached two beat cops to report that he'd been robbed by two youths. The three repaired to the White Spot to fill out paperwork and there discovered the two young stickup men snacking.
White Spot's luck held until the early Eighties.
"And then," Tony says, "well, you tell me. The economy fell apart. Construction fell apart. No construction workers came in for coffee." Neither did oilmen or real estate developers.
The pinch had begun, and the pressure only increased with the huge inheritance taxes that came with Ruby Clements's death in 1982. There was nothing for Tony to do but consolidate. Over the next ten years, the eight locations dwindled to just two: 800 Broadway and Colfax and Harrison.
Along the way Tony pared his staff down to lifers, people like waitress Aggie Garlington, who had decades of seniority. "This place is an institution of nice people," Aggie says. "It's my second home. I've worked here every Christmas and every holiday for 25 years. Management is wonderful. They didn't never bother me."
Tony returns the odd compliment. "I'm lucky to have had a certain amount of failure," he says. "The people who surround me now are the absolute best."
Like Kit Porter, who started work at the Colfax and Speer White Spot twenty years ago, when she was sixteen. Now she manages 800 Broadway, arriving at four in the morning and staying almost twelve hours, taking a break only when husband Bob joins her at the counter for several cups of coffee.
Then there's Debbie Norman, who went from high school to the Colfax and Harrison White Spot in 1977 and has waited tables ever since. "A good waitress has the friendliness and the attentiveness," she says. "I'm cut out for it."
Like Aggie, Debbie has never missed a single Christmas shift, and she looks blank when anyone suggests she might want it otherwise. She has never thought about whether she gets regular raises, she says, and she remembers something about medical benefits but never signed up for them. She's far more concerned about the whereabouts of her regulars, most of whom she hasn't seen since the Colfax and Harrison White Spot finally closed last month.
"It's like leaving school," she worries. "You miss them. A lot of them are older, and you wonder if they've died. I mean, one man and his wife, who came in for who knows how long, and then...they both just passed. A lot of my regulars, I wonder if I'll ever see them again. I wonder how they are."
Then, out of the corner of her eye, Debbie sees a familiar car pull up in the parking lot at 800 Broadway. She takes out her order pad. "It's him," she explains. "A regular. He eats the same thing every day."
It is Pork Tenderloin Day. Tony is wearing a Hawaiian shirt, gray suit pants, a chain-drive wallet and an ever-so-slightly intrigued expression. Not one to stare, he is still fascinated by the latest couple to come in and occupy a booth. He: fifties, besuited, big stomach, Camels. She: twenties, beautifully blond, very made-up, nervous.
"Is he her dad?" Tony asks himself. "Nope. She's cooing at him. Does she want money? No," he reminds himself, "just because she's a beautiful woman doesn't mean she wants money."
She apparently doesn't want pork tenderloin, either, although it is the special of the day. The other, unadvertised special is the Hawaiian shirt. "Why the Hawaiian shirt? Because everybody's supposed to wear a Hawaiian shirt," Tony says. "Why aren't you wearing one?"
Indeed, Aggie, Debbie and Kit are all wearing reasonable approximations, as are many of the customers. "Look at all the variety," Tony says, surveying the regulars. "I recognize over half of them. A mechanic. Two corporate lawyers. A stockbroker. An electrician, and never mind where he works, he shouldn't be here in the first place.
"When I was trying to be rich and famous, I spent a lot of time driving back and forth between the restaurants and managing, but what I really like is to work in a restaurant."
Tony evens out a stack of menus, answers the phone, makes change. Then he says: "Meet. Seat. Greet. That's what I do, run a restaurant. And I've done it pretty well."
Now it is Cone Zone Day--coffee and apple pie, $1.49. Debbie looks into the parking lot and sees a familiar '81 Buick. "Him," she says again.
A few minutes later, Leroy "Him" Broyles, age 78, is thrilled, as always, to see that Debbie has already poured his coffee and arranged his newspaper. As if on auto-pilot, he readies himself for the breakfast he dallies over each morning between ten and noon. It's a senior citizen's special: scrambled eggs, bacon, toast and coffee, $2.59. He eats that, smokes a cigarette, then takes a pill for angina. "It works marvelously well," he says.
This has been Leroy's routine for nearly eleven years, half of which were spent at the Speer and Colfax White Spot. He has never known the name of any waitress who served him, nor they his--as if that mattered. "I set here and admire every day how they keep perking along," he says, "and a few months back, when I was in the hospital four or five days, I got the friendliest greeting when I came back, everyone wanting to know where the hell I'd been. It was kind of fun."
Which is why Leroy has yet to miss Christmas or Thanksgiving here, let alone Corned Beef and Cabbage Day. "Since my quadruple bypass," he says, "I quit cooking. And the thing is, I don't have that much money. I get $60 a month pension, plus Social Security. So I can afford to eat here."
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He can also afford to "play cards every night at five, weekends included," Leroy continues. "Every Thursday at one, I shoot some pool. Another thing about my life: I'm an avid fisherman. This began when I was nine and my uncle took me fishing at Soda Lake with a ten-foot cane pole. Once I drove straight down the Grand Canyon in a brand-new Cadillac."
Tony passes Leroy's table, waves, asks if everything is okay. It is. And now, another message about Leroy's life:
"That Cadillac was the best car I ever had. No. The best car I ever had was a 1950 Ford with an overdrive engine. I sold office equipment and I drove all over, calling on county clerks. I can still feel that engine purring along under me at 80 miles per hour, heading from Cheyenne to Chadron, Nebraska. What a feeling. I'd stop and eat somewhere like this.
"I've eaten at a million places like this. But this place," he decides, "is the best.