Pancake Circus, a Sacramento institution, could close down for good
“I don’t know that he knows that. I don’t know that he knows we drive in from Folsom,” says Jami Smith.
She and her husband are Pancake Circus regulars, arriving every Saturday and Sunday morning for breakfast at the circus-themed diner—something they’ve been doing since their first visit five years ago.
The “he” Jami is referring to is Nicholas Ruebel, part of the father-son team that has run Sacramento’s 60-year-plus institution since 2002. But Reubel and his father, Naren Muni, have had to let all of their staff go during the coronavirus pandemic. Their most recent hire was made three years ago, and their most senior staff member has been there for more than 30 years.
Muni and Ruebel are the lone kitchen staff now, filling pick-up orders by phone and using third-party delivery services. But Ruebel says that even with takeout, closing the dining room has caused business to plummet. But they’re doing their best to weather the storm hitting many local restaurants and other small businesses.
Making ends meet
It’s unlikely that you’ve never been to Pancake Circus at Broadway and 21st Street, whether you’ve been in Sacramento 60 years or 60 days. You may be a regular, lingering over coffee in a favorite booth, or you may be the type who makes it a mandatory stop for out-of-town visitors. The menu offers dependable diner food, the exterior is one of Sacramento’s finest examples of 1950s “Googie”-style architecture and the interior … well, it’s both a time warp and a head trip.
The building’s circus-themed interior has changed very little since its 1958 start as Al and Bud’s Platters. It became one of several Pancake Parades before transforming into the independently-owned Pancake Circus in 1972. Wooden cut-outs of cartoon circus animals adorn walls and booths. And then there are the clowns. Lots and lots of clowns. Staring at you, from every corner. They either delight or unnerve you, but they’re a sight to behold. It’s nearly impossible to discuss Pancake Circus without the words “unique” and “iconic” coming up at least once.
Ruebel and Muni are well aware of the restaurant’s reputation, and they’re fighting to keep Pancake Circus open and bring back all their staff.
“The place hasn’t … it’s never been closed,” Ruebel says.
The family has applied for every bailout plan they know of, including city efforts and the federal Paycheck Protection Program. None have panned out so far.
The Paycheck Protection Program requires applications to be funneled through banks or credit unions, and the Muni-Ruebel family thought that their loyalty to their lender, Bank of America, might give them a better chance of being accepted. They weren’t.
The frustration led the family to transfer all their banking to a local credit union.
“I just feel the big banks—it shows how much they care about the businesses they have,” Ruebel says. “They care about their large clients, they don’t care about their small business clients.”
Without government aid, Pancake Circus could be gone within weeks.
“As we remain open just for take-out, there are so many things that we have to maintain, like city permits, insurance, rent, utilities—I could go on and on and on,” Ruebel says. “There’s so much that we can’t control. We do as much as we can to limit the cost but … we have to have water, we have to have gas, we have to have electricity, insurance … there’s a lot of things that we have to have. We struggle.”
To make matters worse, within days of closing the dining room, a window was broken by a thrown bottle, causing $2,000 in damage.
Ruebel makes it clear that the property manager has been exceedingly kind, but so far there has been no discussion of any loan or discount on rent.
The building’s lease is up for renewal at the end of the year. Ruebel says that before the crisis, they were in a good position to renew, but now they’re not so sure.
“Pancake Circus has been there for over 60 years,” Ruebel says. “Up until the first of March, we thought we’d be there another 60 years … But we don’t know … at some point you have to stop the bleeding. And right now we’re losing a lot of money.”
Saving a landmark
It’s not just a beloved breakfast spot Sacramento stands to lose.
Because neither the building nor the surrounding neighborhood have historical designation or recognition, there’s very little to prevent the building’s owner from selling. That iconic neon sign and the circus kitsch inside could be demolished overnight, just like the former Dimple and Tower records store at Broadway and 16th.
“I know there would be lots of people who would be banging on pots and pans, and be in favor of preserving the building,” says Gretchen Steinberg of Sacramento Modern and board member of Preservation Sacramento. “One would hope that the person who owns and sells or otherwise leas[ed] the building would understand the importance that it has on the collective memory of the people of Sacramento. But that’s not always the case.”
So how best to support Pancake Circus and prevent the loss of a Sacramento institution? Ruebel says he’s thrilled for any takeout order, whether it’s delivered by Postmates, UberEats, GrubHub or any other app-based service.
Pancake Circus also sells T-shirts and mugs via Zazzle, though Ruebel notes those purchases only bring in $3 or $4 per sale. He stops short of suggesting purchasing gift cards.
“We’ve seen a lot of restaurants [die]. Some of them may not reopen … Not saying that’s going to happen with us, but it’s something that I can see happening.”