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Struggling Clifton's Cafeteria puts downtown building up for sale

August 4, 2009 |  4:46 pm

The building that houses one of Southern California’s last remaining cafeteria restaurants is going up for sale. And although the Clinton family, which owns Clifton’s Cafeteria, intends to keep the historic restaurant open for business, the eatery is facing some serious financial challenges.

There was a time when the cafeteria was the undisputed king of Southern California dining. Before World War II, the cheap food and sprawling dining halls brought together strangers new to the region and created lasting bonds.

But in recent years, there have been indications that the Southern California cafeteria was a dying breed, a victim of changing tastes, an aging population and urban sprawl. After Beadle’s in Pasadena closed in 2006, Clifton’s and Arnold’s in Long Beach were regarded as the dining category’s sole survivors.

That same year, the Clinton family bought their downtown building after decades of leasing the space, saying the purchase would help buffer them against an economic downturn. But in the last few years, much of the foot traffic that once bustled along Broadway downtown, where Clifton’s is located, has dissipated.

And many of the area’s retailers have moved to outlying areas, following their mostly Latino customer base out of the area. About 15% to 20% of retail spaces along Broadway downtown are vacant, according to the offfice of City Councilman Jose Huizar — meaning there is far less foot traffic in the area than a few years ago. And although there is a concerted effort to restore the district — which includes plans for reintroducing a street car to the downtown zone — Clifton’s Cafeteria has not been immune to economic forces.

Donald Clinton — son of the cafeteria’s founder, Clifton Clinton — told The Times in February that business had been down 30% in the previous six months.

 “We are trying to survive during difficult times,” he said.

(Calls to Robert Clinton, the president of Clifton Cafeteria Inc., were not returned Wednesday.)

Broker Ed Rosenthal said the ideal buyer would be able to improve the building and restore it to its previous splendor while allowing the cafeteria to continue operating there. But in the meantime, the family, he said, “is hoping to get lucky....[to] just make some money.”

The nearly 47,000-square-foot building — with five stories, plus a basement — is on the market for $4.75 million, according to materials. Clifton’s Cafeteria, or Clifton’s Brookdale, as it is also known, is the last remaining of eight Clifton cafeterias that once dotted the Southern California landscape. Each cafeteria was themed slightly differently and decorated to match, with the Brookdale outlet inspired by a Santa Cruz Mountains lodge.

But it is the food that has coaxed generations of Angelenos through the restaurant’s doors: an astonishing array of traditional, even predictable fare that can include six kinds of Jell-O, 24 kinds of cake and pie, and meats cooked in every iteration. Because Clifton’s kept prices low and never sold alcohol at the site, the restaurant always has operated on narrow profit margins.

The Clinton family’s 2006 purchase of the building — for an undisclosed price — was done to shield the cafeteria from the vagaries of leasing, and many downtown residents said at the time that they hoped it would signal a resurgence of the building, whose original facade is covered by a metal grate added after World War II.

Warren Cooley, of the Valley Economic Development Council, which arranged about 60% of the financing for that purchase, said the company was current on its payments.

— Cara Mia DiMassa