Many down-home restaurants strive to provide a family-like atmosphere. According to regular diner Dennis Braunreiter, the new Jerry Bob's Family Restaurant in Catalina achieves that lofty goal.
The 73-year-old starts each morning at the 16639 N. Oracle Road restaurant, usually ordering eggs, coffee and toast. His wife, Joanne, accompanied him at the Oro Valley location before she died of cancer in 2010.
When Joanne was too sick to come in, Braunreiter recalls owner Shellie Sportsman and her staff boxing up cinnamon rolls and meals to take home to her. When she passed away, Jerry Bob's staffers attended her funeral.
"They kind of adopted me like a family person," Braunreiter said. "They go around and remember customers' names. That's one of the biggest things they've got going for them."
Sportsman said such care is her core philosophy.
"I've got quite a few of them on my cellphone," Sportsman said. "If they don't come in, I'll call and find out if they're OK. We've went to hospices and supported families through hard times. We make it a point to really support them as they supported us."
Sportsman said the reason she, her husband, Gregory - they're both age 48 -and two silent partners opened a location in Catalina is because she wanted to make the commute easier for some of her regulars, many of whom used to take long drives to eat at their Oro Valley restaurant.
Opening up an eatery in a somewhat remote and sparsely populated area may have been risky, but Sportsman said the bet is paying off. Business has been steady since the July 24 opening, with retirees and families making up the bulk of the clientele. The restaurant specializes in traditional home-style comfort foods. Sportsman said the most popular dish at the new restaurant is chicken-fried steak.
"We think we're giving Catalina another choice," Sportsman said. "People were saying there was nothing in San Manuel, Oracle or SaddleBrooke, so that prompted us to open this one."
The Catalina expansion was good news for several staffers, whom Sportsman promoted and transferred there.
"I feel truly blessed, having hired employees that tend to stick around with us, grow with us," Sportsman said. "We took a few of our employees and promoted them - brought them out here and they're part of making our business successful."
One such employee is Spencer McCrea, 27, who started as a line cook at the Oro Valley location more than three years ago and is now kitchen manager in Catalina.
"I'm trying to support my family, and for Shellie, the family aspect is really big," McCrea said. "The communication between everybody, I think, is phenomenal. That's a big thing with all of us - communication and teamwork."
Sportsman said she visits both locations every day, and that chatting with her customers is the most enjoyable part of her job.
"They come at breakfast and start their day with us," Sportsman said. "Some of them come in twice a day. They come for breakfast and come back in before we close, for lunch, which is really nice. Before long we consider them family."
Braunreiter certainly feels as welcome at Jerry Bob's as a family friend. He rarely misses a Friday fish fry promotion, can talk at length about how clean and friendly he thinks the restaurant is, and says he prefers the Catalina location even though it's farther from his home than the Oro Valley restaurant because he enjoys the scenic drive.
"It's good-quality food and great pricing," Braunreiter said. "They just really are wonderful. They take the extra step."
IF YOU GO
• What: Jerry Bob's Family Restaurant
• Where: 16639 N. Oracle Road
• Hours: 5:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. every day
• Phone: 818-7882
Contact reporter Phil Villarreal at 573-4130 or firstname.lastname@example.org