Cooking Breakfast at Bette’s Diner in Berkeley for 27 Years

by Sarah Henry on January 20, 2012 · 27 comments

in berkeley bites,food businesses,restaurants

Chef Darryl Kimble takes a break from behind the stoves to talk breakfast. Photo: Sarah Henry

In the restaurant business, chefs change jobs about as often as the lead in a Superbowl playoff. So to have stayed the course at one spot, worked your way up the ranks almost since the inception of a beloved eating institution, and still genuinely enjoy going to work every day, well, that’s worth noting.

Such is the case for Darryl Kimble, the manager at Bette’s Oceanview Diner on Fourth Street, which celebrates its 30th year in 2012. Kimble has been cooking there for 27 and a half years; he joined the kitchen crew at 19.

The perennially popular restaurant serves breakfast and lunch to an astounding 135,000 people a year, although it only sits about 50 inside.

The sign on Bette's counter says it all: the popular diner served 13% more customers in 2011 than in 2010

But diner regulars already know the place draws a crowd (just like they know there’s no ocean view). Wait times for a booth or table are a given, though counter seats turn over more quickly — early in the week anyway. Weekend waits can stretch beyond an hour.

Customers seem to take it in stride. Bette and Manfred Kroening own the diner, which has a ’50s feel by way of a ’30s Art Deco aesthetic. The menu features diner favorites: eggs any style, home fries, pancakes (including their signature soufflé pancakes), waffles, and sandwiches.

We’re not talking fancy-pants-artisanal cuisine, but familiar comfort food that transcends time and trends, though the Kroenings now grow much of the restaurant’s produce on their five-acre farm near Sebastapol. It’s there they harvest organic fruit, greens, and pumpkins for their popular pumpkin pancakes.

Kimble, 47, who lives in south-west Berkeley, usually works Thursday through Monday. We chatted at the diner on Tuesday (he was filling in for an employee), over a plate of spicy scramble and chai.

Can you walk us through your trajectory at Bette’s?

I started as a prep cook, did that for about five years, making soup, scones, and muffins. Then I moved to the back station — that’s where you make the sandwiches and salads — and then they moved me to the line on eggs. I used to work on the egg and bacon line at my previous job at the Shattuck Hotel, so I was comfortable with that. And then, reluctantly, I took over as a manager. I didn’t really want to, but Bette asked me, and so I said I would give it a try. That was about 12 years ago, maybe more.

A local landmark: Bette's Oceanview Diner in Berkeley

What do you like about working at Bette’s?

The people I work with are friendly and cheerful. I like working for Bette and Manfred. They’re the best bosses you could have. I have freedom, I can talk with them with ease, they understand if I have a problem, or, if I want to change something on the menu, they go with it.

Everyone I work with is like family to me. I love the atmosphere here; it’s a relaxing, stress-free, and comfortable place.  And the people-watching is good.

What do you like about your customers?

They’re friendly, as well. We have really loyal customers. Some have been with us since the place opened and come in every day. We know their orders by heart.

Are there any challenges working at the diner?

Coming up with new specials every day, seven days a week is a challenge. We want to make dishes that nobody else is doing. We don’t want to copy others. That’s an important distinction about the diner: we do our own thing.

How has the food changed in the past three decades?

The breakfast is pretty much the same as it was in the beginning. But we have more specials now — like fish tacos and meatloaf — than in the past. When I first started, the restaurant used to serve dinner, which we no longer do. Dinner service stopped in the late 1980s. We use more organic produce now. Bette brings it from her farm, about half of the produce we use comes from there.

Regulars flock to Bette's for comfort food like pancakes

How have the customers changed over the years?

They’re still the same, just older, of course. Some of our newer customers ask for certain things and we try to accommodate, we get the gluten-free, the vegetarians, and the vegans. We get customers now who just ask for egg whites, which we can do. But if someone asks for Egg Beaters [an egg substitute], we tell them: “No, we don’t do that.” All our eggs are good and fresh, we get them from Petaluma Farms.

How do you handle people waiting to eat?

We’re used to it. We get a rhythm going and we just don’t pay no attention to how long the wait is because we do really well for how small our kitchen is. Our record is 541 covers in a day on a weekend.

Do you dine out in Berkeley?

I don’t go out for breakfast (I’m not a big breakfast person) but I do go out for dinner quite a bit. I go to Café Rouge. I like their hamburgers and they have an open bar. I also like Kirala — they have really good sushi. And Rivoli is one of my favorite places. It serves really fresh food at good prices.

How long do you see yourself working at Bette’s?

I know I’m going to make it to 30 years working here. Just to do it. I’ll be 50 then.

What else would you like to do?

I wish I could open my own place. I’d run a soul food-barbecue joint in Hawaii. I’ve been to Waikiki and the food is pretty bad. I’ve looked at places. But I probably will still be here.

This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside.

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Brette Sember January 20, 2012 at 11:14 am

That’s a long time to stay put in one restaurant. I’ll be it runs like a well-oiled machinery!

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Sheryl January 20, 2012 at 2:15 pm

Oh, I love a good breakfast place. Something about drinking coffee and eating eggs is so comforting. It’s a great way to wake up!

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Sarah Henry January 20, 2012 at 3:51 pm

I know what you mean, Sheryl. Now that winter has finally arrived in the Bay Area, a warm breakfast is just the ticket.

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ruth pennebaker January 20, 2012 at 2:28 pm

Lovely interview, photos. There’s nothing better than a simple, wholesome diner.
ruth pennebaker´s last [type] ..In Spite of Everything, I Still Miss John Wayne

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Sarah Henry January 20, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Well said, Ruth.

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Alisa Bowman January 20, 2012 at 4:00 pm

Sounds like an awesome place.
Alisa Bowman´s last [type] ..What’s your most vexing problem?

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Sarah Henry January 21, 2012 at 9:58 pm

Come check it out when you’re in town, Alisa.

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Casey@Good. Food. Stories. January 20, 2012 at 6:57 pm

I often think there’s no better food than diner food. And I hope Kimble gets to follow his dream and open a place in Hawaii soon – although Berkeley will miss him, I’m sure!
Casey@Good. Food. Stories.´s last [type] ..Joining the Cult of the Wok

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Sarah Henry January 21, 2012 at 9:59 pm

I’ll be curious to hear, Casey, if Kimble jumps ship for the island life too.

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MyKidsEatSquid January 21, 2012 at 9:44 am

Count me as a diner food fan too. I’m wondering–are there any good soul food places in Berkeley? We’re just starting to discover great places here in Cleveland–I like that even the salad dressing has a kick of spice.

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Sarah Henry January 21, 2012 at 10:00 pm

A soul food bbq joint just opened not far from me in Oakland but in general Berkeley doesn’t have much to offer on that score.

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Donna Hull January 21, 2012 at 4:11 pm

Breakfast is my favorite meal. I admire someone who’s worked in the same position for as long as Darryl Kimble has.
Donna Hull´s last [type] ..Saturday’s scene: leaving Longyearbyen

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Sarah Henry January 21, 2012 at 10:01 pm

It feels like that kind of longevity is rare these days, doesn’t it?

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Living Large in our Little House January 21, 2012 at 8:44 pm

Eating breakfast out is one of my favorite things. This looks like a great diner!

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Sarah Henry January 21, 2012 at 10:03 pm

I’m sensing a theme here: Peeps who like to go to diners for breakfast. Funnily enough, I also know plenty of people who’d never think of eating out in the morning.

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Jane Boursaw January 22, 2012 at 2:54 pm

That’s amazing that he’s been there nearly 30 years and still loving it. It just shows the beauty of finding a place and a niche and a job that you really and truly love. Many kudos.
Jane Boursaw´s last [type] ..Do We Need a Princess Bride Remake?

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Sarah Henry January 23, 2012 at 5:46 pm

Well said, Jane, and so unusual, in this day and age, don’t you think?

I suspect some kudos here also belong to Darryl’s employers, the Kroenings, who have set the tone for a work environment that fosters such longevity and loyalty.

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Kris @ Attainable Sustainable January 22, 2012 at 3:06 pm

This is all kinds of awesome. How great is it that Darryl has a job that he loves so much?? I bet the patrons love HIM.

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Sarah Henry January 23, 2012 at 5:47 pm

Yes, Kris, I think the lovefest goes both ways, judging by comments on Berkeleyside, where this story first appeared.

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Alexandra January 22, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Those pancakes look yummy. I love places were the personnel knows what people like to order.
Alexandra´s last [type] ..Snow Follies in Wellfleet …

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Sarah Henry January 23, 2012 at 5:47 pm

For many customers, that kind of service goes a long way, doesn’t it, Sandy?

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Em (Wine and Butter) January 23, 2012 at 1:14 am

It says a lot about a place if they are able to retain staff for that long – makes me even keener on eating at Bette’s! :)
Em (Wine and Butter)´s last [type] ..Frozen Margarita Frozen Yogurt

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Sarah Henry January 23, 2012 at 5:48 pm

You counting the days until you’re here, Em?

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The Writer's [Inner] Journey January 23, 2012 at 7:31 am

There is something really wonderful about the staying power of a person, which this story suggests. Very very nice. And about how each of us makes our mark, well, it matters, and when you add that up over the years it’s quite an impact indeed.
The Writer’s [Inner] Journey´s last [type] ..The 5-Question [Screenwriter+Author+Therapist for Creative Issues] Interview: Dennis Palumbo

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Sarah Henry January 23, 2012 at 5:49 pm

One could do worse, it’s so true, Merr, than to know you made thousands of folks happy over a cup of coffee, scrambled eggs, and waffles. Feeding people well is it’s own reward.

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Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart January 23, 2012 at 4:01 pm

I love breakfast, and I’m all for loyalty. I think I’d have to go during slow times because when I’m HUNGRY … I’m not so keen on a long wait.
Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart´s last [type] ..Web Goes On Strike – Champion of My Heart Joins Protest

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Sarah Henry January 23, 2012 at 5:50 pm

That’s the right attitude, Rox, this is the kind of place to slip into on a (relatively) slow Tuesday morning in January, as I did. No wait for me.

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