SoCal Jews — Flavoring the national taste

In the history of dining, L.A. Jews are all over the menu.

For starters, when, in 2010, first lady Michelle Obama, along with her daughters Malia and Sasha; her mother, Marian Robinson; and a Secret Service entourage stopped in for lunch at Pink’s to have a chili dog, she and the rest of the minions who eat there probably had no idea that the famous hot dog stand near the corner of La Brea and Melrose avenues was started by a Jewish couple — Paul and Betty Pink.

Also little known is that Southern California Jews have contributed entire menus to the national bill of fare.

Order a Grand Slam Breakfast and you have Harold Butler of Orange County, co-founder of Denny’s, to thank for creating the chain. When you save room for dessert, don’t forget to leave a tip for Southland brothers-in-law Burton “Butch” Baskin and Irvine “Irv” Robbins, who brought us 31 Flavors.

“Originally, the family was named Pinkowitz,” said Richard Pink, son of the founders, one of three current co-owners — including Beverly Pink-Wolf, his sister, and Gloria Pink, his wife, whom I met on one chili-scented afternoon, on the back patio of Pink’s.

As Richard and Beverly Pink tell it, their mother, Betty, was born in Russia, played violin and piano, and had a career in Yiddish theater before coming to Los Angeles in the 1920s. After moving here, she was even in a movie, Richard Pink recalled.

Their father, Paul, came to Los Angeles in the early 1920s via Minneapolis, went to Fairfax High, studied to be an accountant, landed a job with a local shoe company, and married Betty in 1931.

In 1939, Betty Pink saw an ad in the Citizen News for a hot dog cart. “My father borrowed $50 from his mother-in-law,” Richard Pink said. “They leased a space [near the corner of La Brea and Melrose] for $15. When my mother picked up the cart, it was on La Cienega, and she rolled it right to La Brea.” 

For the dogs, Paul went to a family he’d met through B’nai B’rith, the Hoffman brothers, of Hoffman Bros. Packing, who created the Hoffy hot dog, the brand Pink’s sells to this day.

From day one, they served chili dogs, using a secret recipe created by Betty.

“Hot dogs were 10 cents and drinks 5 cents,” explained Gloria Pink, who oversees daily operation of Pink’s, and at our meeting wore a bright pink blazer.

Because there was no power on the site, they used a hardware store extension cord plugged into a nearby business to power their lights.

By 1941, Pink’s was doing well enough to buy the property for $4,000, with the help of a loan from the Bank of America (the story is recounted in a 2011 Bank of America commercial). In 1946, the family built the first stand — the contractors were cousins — and, to expand their business, Betty sold flowers and floral arrangements next door.

Richard Pink recalls that his parents never ate together. “Someone had to be at the flower shop,” he said. Richard, who along with his sister went to Fairfax High — he had his bar mitzvah at nearby Congregation Shaarei Tefila — remembers leaving school with friends to come over to the stand for lunch.

“I brought hog dogs to the teacher, and I would get good grades,” Beverly Pink-Wolf said.

With a new generation running the place, long lines of people — the stand has been featured on several TV food shows — are still coming over, including celebrities. Gloria remembers coming to work and finding Jerry Lewis having a chili dog. Other celebrities who have eaten at Pink’s include Adam Sandler, Aretha Franklin, Katy Perry, Steve Martin and Jack Nicholson.

“Bruce Willis proposed to Demi Moore at Pink’s,” Richard Pink said.

Drawing on the strength of the Hollywood connection, the business has licensed locations in places like Las Vegas, Knott’s Berry Farm and Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, Ohio.

As for the Jewish founders of Baskin-Robbins, the brothers-in-law, Burton Baskin and Irv Robbins — Baskin was married to Robbins’ sister, Shirley — started out in separate ventures at the advice of Irv’s father, according to Warren H. Schmidt, professor emeritus of public administration at USC, and author of the history of Baskin-Robbins posted on the company’s Web site. 

In 1945, Robbins opened Snowbird Ice Cream in Glendale, featuring 21 flavors of high-quality ice cream. A year later, Baskin opened Burton’s Ice Cream Shop in Pasadena. By 1948, they had six stores between them.

As they opened more stores, Burton and Irv recognized that to keep the quality, each store would need to be managed by someone who had an ownership stake. Although they didn’t realize it at the time, the two founders had added a new flavor to the ice cream business — franchise — and investors loved the taste.

In 1949, with more than 40 stores in Southern California, Burton and Irv purchased their first dairy in Burbank, allowing them “complete control over the production of their ice cream, and the development of new ingredients and flavors.”

In 1953, the ice cream chain dropped the separate identities of Snowbird and Burton’s and became Baskin-Robbins.

“We had a big celebration when for the first time we took in $100 in a day,” said Shirley Baskin Familian, Burton’s wife.

“It grew with prosperity of the country. A lot of people say their first job was at Baskin-Robbins,” added Shirley, whose favorite flavor is rocky road.

She does recall though that the business ate into the family’s vacation time. “When everybody was on holiday that was our busy time,” she said.

“Ice cream was always very joyful,” remembered Edie Baskin, Burton’s and Shirley’s daughter, who grew up along with her brother Richard — he’s a film composer and producer — in Studio City. “We had an outdoor freezer, and kids would come over and swipe ice cream. In one house he had a soda fountain,” said Baskin, who was also the original photographer for “Saturday Night Live.”

“My dad was from an Orthodox family; my mother Reform. We grew up Reform at Temple Beth Hillel,” she said.

“We would call my father at the factory and tell him which flavors to bring home,” she said. He would bring home experimental flavors to try, and “we would give our opinions,” Baskin said. 

According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, lox and bagels was one of the flavors that didn’t make the cut.  

As for Irv Robbins, Schmidt, who was a family friend, remembers him as a man who enjoyed life to the fullest. “He had a boat called the 32nd Flavor,” Schmidt recalled. “And a swimming pool shaped like an ice cream cone.”

Today, Baskin-Robbins, which the owners sold in 1967, has 7,000 stores in 50 countries.

Denny’s for its part, with more than 1,600 locations, is another chain created by a Jewish entrepreneur with Southern California ties. In 1953, according to the company’s timeline, Harold Butler converted a Danny’s Donut’s that he owned in Lakewood along with Richard Jezak, to become the first Denny’s.

Butler also started Winchell’s and had a hand in developing, among other chains, Naugles and Jojos.

The Butlers were members of Temple Beth Emet in Anaheim, where their daughter, Cheryl, attended Hebrew school. According to Jack Finkelstein, a past president of the congregation, Harold Butler made several donations to the temple.

In 2010, Cheryl, a marketing executive in the restaurant and financial industries, wrote a letter supporting the efforts of a group that was challenging the corporate direction of Denny’s, which her father had sold in 1971. “As a pioneer in the restaurant industry, my father built the Denny’s brand from his heart,” she wrote.

All three of these iconic food ventures gave great satisfaction to their founders. “My parents were very happy with what they had,” Richard Pink said.

“Ice cream was a wonderful business because it was for happy occasions,” Shirley Baskin Familian said. “Serving food has always been an important thing for the Jewish people.”