POCATELLO — Jeri’s Jumbo’s Cafe has been around for more than six decades and while the current manager and granddaughter of the first owner says they’ve had to change some things recently because of the coronavirus — namely an expanded social media presence and new once-a-week take-out dinners — she says the business has mostly seen success over the years by not changing much of anything at all.
Jeri and George Pieper first opened the breakfast-and-lunch joint at 3122 Pole Line Road in Pocatello in 1966, and it has been in the family ever since. Manager Heidi Hunsaker grew up spending lots of time at the business, which her mother purchased in 2000 and still owns, and she says continuing her grandmother’s legacy has been vitally important.
“We haven’t changed anything,” Hunsaker said. “Our menu is still the same as what Grandma had, and we still follow the same recipes. How we prepare things, how we do everything — the recipes haven’t changed. We still do it exactly the same as Grandma did it.”
In fact, before Jeri passed away in 2017, Hunsaker said she made sure all the recipes had her grandmother’s stamp of approval.
“Before she passed away, I made it a point to make sure that she approved of everything that we were doing,” Hunsaker said. “She’d be like, ‘This is perfect. This is how it needs to be.’ If something was wrong, she would say, ‘No, you can’t do it this way. You have to do it this way.’ Our Spanish omelet is her recipe, that’s her deal, and everybody loves our Spanish omelet. Before she passed, we made sure that we had that down, and she tasted it and made sure it was how it was supposed to taste. ... We try to keep things the way that it’s always been.”
'THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX AND WORK EVEN HARDER'
While the Jumbo’s crew has always prided themselves on their consistency, the outbreak of COVID-19 and the subsequent closure of dine-in services because of a statewide stay-home order forced the business to be creative to keep attracting customers as it transitioned to only doing take-out.
“Like most businesses, things weren’t exactly how they should be and business was down, but I knew from the beginning that I needed to do something to keep business rolling in and to keep people here,” Hunsaker said. “We had to keep our name in their minds.”
She said that while Jumbo’s already had an existing Facebook page, she had never consistently posted on it before. In mid-March, Hunsaker started posting every single day — photos of daily specials and the menu’s staples — and she still does so routinely even though the restaurant has reopened for dine-in service.
Hunsaker said all that paid off and business kept coming in during the stay-home order, albeit less than usual.
“There were some days it was just insane that were as busy as we stayed, and there were some days we weren’t, and that’s hard,” she said. “I’m always wanting to be better than the year before. Every day, I’ll compare the day to the year before, so to not have those numbers where they should be, it’s hard. It’s frustrating. But then you look at the big picture of how many businesses closed, how many businesses kind of sat back and waited for business to come to them and, during this time, that’s not what you needed to do. You had to step up and think outside the box and work even harder.”
Working harder for Hunsaker meant putting in significantly more hours. She says she usually works about 55 hours a week, but after she had to temporarily lay off her servers, that number jumped to about 90 hours. She opened and closed the restaurant every day of the week, and she had less time to run managerial errands.
"I was taking take-out. I was cooking. I was prepping. I was doing whatever I could do — every aspect of that business," she said. "So I was here here from open to close, and then I would have to stay to do my behind-the-scenes type stuff. And then I would go home and be on Facebook all night posting or doing whatever I needed to do.”
She added, “It was like learning how to run a whole different business. I went from running a business that I’ve run and known for my entire life. This is all I’ve ever done. It’s all I know. You have this set routine of how you run this business and how it works, and it just completely flipped. We did a complete 180, and it was like, ‘Oh. Now what?’”
At first, Hunsaker said she had too much food and it went bad. Then as the take-out business picked up, she realized her newly adjusted orders meant she didn’t have enough food.
In addition to figuring out the logistics of transitioning entirely to take-out and trying to order the right amount of food, there was another hitch caused by the coronavirus outbreak: Supply lines were being upended.
“Our vendors were out of everything because all of these plants were closing,” Hunsaker said. “My normal ordering day usually takes me like an hour, maybe two. I do a walkthrough. I fill out my inventory sheet. I get online. I order my food. I’m done. That’s where those long days would come in. I would sit down, order my food and then I would spend the next hour on the phone trying to find products that vendors couldn’t get me. So then I’d be calling other vendors or I’d be running to Costco or I’d be running somewhere to find what I needed. We didn’t want to run out of things.”
But Jumbo’s kept chugging along and tried to keep things as normal as possible.
“We didn’t change a thing. We kept our same hours; we kept our same menu,” Hunsaker said.
In fact, instead of decreasing their menu's size as some businesses did, they started experimenting.
“We started doing new, fun things that we’ve never done before," Hunsaker said. "We started doing an eggs Benedict that we’ve never done before, but we thought, ‘Let’s give it a try.’ Then that brought people in. That’s where those Facebook posts come in.”
People didn't have a lot of breakfast options during the stay-home order because a lot of restaurants were closed, and Hunsaker says that because Jumbo's stayed open, the business saw a lot of new faces.
“We received a lot of customers who had never eaten here before,” she said. “A lot of great local favorites that we compete with, they were closed, so people needed somewhere to get breakfast and we were here.”
Another bright point was that bigger businesses in town — including Costco, Coca-Cola and Amy’s Kitchen, as well as some banks, doctors' offices and dentists' offices — came to Jumbo’s asking them to make meals for their essential employees. Hunsaker said Amy’s Kitchen one day asked for 600 cinnamon rolls, and she worked 33 hours straight making that order in addition to her other work.
“We’ve had great support from the community, and it’s been awesome,” Hunsaker said.
Now that the option for dine-in service is available to customers again, the restaurant has been doing really well — but, she says, “Everything has changed.”
Instead of customers waiting inside the restaurant for an available table, they’re asked to wait outside or in their cars (always with the option of a cup of coffee served in a mug from the restaurant’s mismatched, eclectic collection). When a table is ready, Jumbo’s will call the customer’s phone. Hunsaker said people are encouraged to call ahead to get on the waitlist during busy times, though they need to make sure they're in the parking lot when they receive the call.
Everything on every table is cleaned and sanitized with bleach — including items that might have been excluded from such treatment before the outbreak, such as the condiments and salt and pepper shakers. Menus are sanitized between each use as well.
The big white countertop that is the centerpiece of the small restaurant has been bleached so many times that the protective film on it is starting to wear off and there are now permanent coffee stains decorating its surface.
“We’re doing everything that we can,” Hunsaker said. “This place smells like bleach most of the time. It’s crazy.”
BREAKFAST THAT 'JUST CAN'T BE BEAT'
For many years now, Jumbo’s has won first place for best breakfast in the Idaho State Journal’s annual Readers’ Choice Awards.
There are several factors that Hunsaker says have contributed to those wins, but she thinks the biggest reason is that they have huge portion sizes.
“Our portions are by far the biggest in town,” she said. “Some people will look at our prices and go, ‘Oh that’s a little high,’ but not when you’re looking at what you get. We are priced the same price as everywhere in town but you’re getting almost double the food.”
Another thing that sets Jumbo’s apart from the competition is that every item on their menu is homemade and made right when the customer orders it and not before.
There’s no pre-breaking eggs or using liquid ones. There’s no store-bought jam. The restaurant makes 30 loaves of white bread every day. Even the oatmeal is made from scratch instead of pre-making a big pot of it.
“The only thing we have cooking all the time is bacon because we go through so much bacon that we just cook bacon all day long,” Hunsaker said. “A lot of places put their bacon in the oven. We don’t. Ours is done on a flat-top with a spatula. Our hands are on everything in that kitchen, and I think that’s why we win best breakfast. It just can’t be beat.”
Hunsaker said her cooks are fast, too, despite the extra steps.
“We can turn tables over just as fast as anywhere else, but every single item is made from scratch,” she said.
Hunsaker and her staff also have high expectations for their food.
“We pride ourselves on what comes out of that kitchen,” she said. “I try to have my eyes on every plate to make sure that it looks like it needs to look, and if there’s not enough hashbrowns on a plate, I send it back. If there’s something wrong with that waffle, if that pancake isn’t a certain way, it’s going back.”
'MY HOME TO YOURS'
Jeri’s Jumbo’s Cafe has always been a place for breakfast and lunch, but there was a short period in the 1970s when Hunsaker’s Grandma Jeri served dinner at the restaurant.
It didn’t last long.
Before Jeri died, Hunsaker expressed an interest to her about wanting to start being open for dinner.
Hunsaker said her grandma told her, “Heidi, you stick with what you’re good at. You don’t need to do dinner. I tried it and it didn’t work.”
But people have asked Hunsaker about serving dinner in the past, and at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, she decided to test the waters. They served dinner a couple times in the restaurant before the stay-home order went into place. Hunsaker said it went OK, but when restaurants were forced to close their dine-in service, they tried something else, starting Easter Sunday: a once-a-week take-out dinner.
There is a different meal served every week, and it always includes a main course, a side dish, a vegetable, bread and dessert. So far, there have been main courses such as chicken-fried chicken, lasagna, meatloaf, baked pork chops and Cajun chicken alfredo. Individual meals serve one or two people and family meals serve up to eight.
At first, Jumbo’s served the dinners on Sundays, but when summer hit and people were more likely to be out of town on the weekends, the meals transitioned to Mondays. People can preorder on Saturday and Sunday by commenting on the post for that week’s dinner on the Jeri’s Jumbo’s Facebook page, and meals can be picked up between 4 and 6 p.m. Mondays.
Hunsaker says the dinners have been a big hit so far.
"The biggest compliment I get is, ‘This is so amazing, my kids ate it,’” she said. “That, to me, is a huge compliment.”
The once-a-week dinners are also a way for her to share her recipes without having to make a big commitment to serving dinner in the restaurant every day.
“It’s my way of being able to share my recipes — what I’ve been taught over the years and what I cook at home,” Hunsaker said. “‘My home to yours’ is how I feel about it because these are things I would make my family for dinner, and I’m making them for other people’s families.”
Running her grandmother’s namesake restaurant and continuing her work is Hunsaker’s passion.
“People ask me, ‘Why do you work so much?’ and it’s just because this is where I feel closest to my grandmother because I was raised here with her,” she said. “So this business just means everything to me. It’s super important to me. I think that’s why people think I own it because I’m so invested in it and I’m so passionate about it. I eat, sleep, drink this place.”
For more information or to order a Monday take-out meal, visit Jeri's Jumbo's Cafe on Facebook. The restaurant is open from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. seven days a week for both dine-in and take-out service.