A classic success story for breakfast

August 14, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

For 38 years, drivers heading west on Baltimore National Pike may have noticed the International House of Pancakes restaurant sitting at the corner of Johnnycake Road. Karen Rocha started working there 15 years ago.

Drivers passing the restaurant today won't see the familiar IHOP logo. They will see a sign that reads "Shirley's Family Diner." But Rocha still works there. She owns the place.

How that familiar IHOP changed to Shirley's Family Diner is a classic American story of one woman hoisting herself up by her bootstraps. Boy, am I a sucker for a bootstraps tale.

But this is also a David vs. Goliath story, one that pits the new kid on the block against the established power of a restaurant franchise with pockets deep enough to run television commercials urging folks to hop on down to IHOP for a bite to eat. I guess I'm a sucker for a David vs. Goliath tale too.

I first learned of Shirley's about two months ago, after leaving my Honda at the O'Donnell Honda Service Center just down the street. Usually I'd take the trek up the road and have breakfast at IHOP. But in May I found myself having breakfast at Shirley's Family Diner.

"On April 23, 2006, we closed as IHOP," Rocha said. "On April 26, 2006, we opened as Shirley's. The signs, menus, uniforms and new dishes all had to be done in two days."

Rocha started as a server at IHOP. She worked her way up to assistant manager and then general manager, completing paperwork and filling out food orders. Two unrelated events led to Rocha becoming the owner of a new restaurant on an old IHOP site.

The previous owner decided to retire. About the same time, IHOP honchos decided not to renew the lease on the building.

"IHOP is taking out all the A-frame IHOPS," Rocha explained. "An A-frame is one of the older buildings. The newer ones are bigger, and they couldn't make this one any bigger." So Rocha put her experience as a general manager and her training in IHOP management classes to good use: She rented the building and just changed the name.

All this happened at a time of personal crisis for Rocha. She took off five months last year to be with her ailing mother, who passed away in August 2005. Her mother, Shirley Stein, also worked for several IHOPS, including the one where her daughter worked for years. Yes, Rocha did name her new restaurant for her mother.

So what's the biggest difference between being a general manager for a franchise and owning a family restaurant?

"It wasn't difficult," Rocha said of the change. "It was a little different. The biggest challenge is I have more responsibility: getting the bills paid and making sure employees are happy. The hard part is really not hard. It's time-consuming."

There is one advantage to Rocha having more responsibility as an owner: With it comes more freedom. She no longer has to stick strictly to an IHOP menu. Oh, the omelets and buttermilk pancakes are still part of the food fare, but now customers can have spare ribs, crab cakes and catfish. Rocha said she's experimented with some desserts, serving them on a trial basis. If customers take to them, she permanently adds them to the menu.

So, with all this responsibility along with freedom, how is Rocha doing playing David to IHOP's Goliath?

"I'm paying the bills," she said. "I'm not getting rich." News of Shirley's has been "word of mouth [among] old IHOP customers. They say the food's better."

The man who should rightly take credit for that is Michael Carter, who does double duty as a cook and manager at Shirley's. Carter started 20 years ago when Shirley's was still an IHOP.

"I watched her [go] from a waitress to a general manager to an owner now," Carter said of Rocha. "She's a good person. Well-respected. She's a people person. She's a good person to work for. She looks out for her employees. If you need her, she's got your back."

That feeling must be mutual. When asked why he still works at Shirley's after it switched from being an IHOP, Carter answered, "She asked me to stick around."

Most of the old IHOP crew stuck around.

"What was so wonderful is that all the IHOP employees stayed with me," Rocha said. No sooner had those words popped out of her mouth than tall, blond Joanie Ward walked up to Rocha and threw her arms around her boss.

"We all stayed," Ward said, "and it's because of her."

April Church started working at the Baltimore National Pike IHOP five years ago, which makes her a veritable rookie, compared with Rocha and Carter. She's another one who stayed after the transition.

"I stayed because Karen was gonna run it, and I knew with Karen running it, it was going to be a good place," Church said.

It looks like in this David vs. Goliath story some very dedicated former IHOP employees are putting their money on David.

greg.kane@baltsun.com

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