Paul Bruso greeted customers coming into Ernie’s Coffee Shop and Cafe along with the rest of his wait staff one recent morning, a task he’s helped perform for the last 35 years.
At times, one or two come in. They’re followed by 10 minutes of non-stop traffic.
“It can be crazy, then slow, then crazy again,” Bruso, Ernie’s co-owner, said. “It’s been like this for 35 years.”
Recently, Bruso and his wife Judy passed their responsibilities on to the restaurant’s new owners, South Lake Tahoe residents Kent Baer and Nate Bergner.
“I had other people who were interested in buying Ernie’s, but I wanted locals to own it,” Bruso said. “It’s been a local place for so long, and people like Kent and Nate know the community and have seen how it’s evolved.”
Baer and Bergner purchased Ernie’s in February after an exhaustive search by the Brusos to find someone local to take over the helm.
“Paul came to us last fall because he said he was interested in retiring,” Baer said. “He knew we were interested in the food business.”
Between the announcement in February and late July, the new owners have worked in the restaurant, getting to know the nuts and bolts of the operations.
“He coached us for several months to get us oriented to the entire restaurant,” Baer said.
Ernie’s has been a staple for residents and visitors, dishing out American diner-style breakfast and lunch cuisine since it opened its doors in 1968.
For South Lake Tahoe it’s also been a community hub, home to holiday parties; fundraisers for education and those with special needs and local nonprofits; a place for regular stops for a morning cup of joe or a bite to eat.
The Brusos purchased Ernie’s in 1981, when it still inhabited the building now occupied by Bert’s Cafe, just across Emerald Bay Road.
In 2002, the Brusos purchased the building that once housed Frank’s Restaurant, demolished the 50-year-old structure and built a new building.
In December 2003, the restaurant moved into its current location.
The interior evokes a stylish, yet classic, American mountain town diner with ample seating and plenty of light. Memorabilia and photos from local events decorate the walls, while well-rendered caricatures of the restaurant’s staff hang over the counter.
“It’s been an institution and a well-respected business in the community, participating in many facets of the community over time,” Baer said, adding that he respects Paul and Judy Bruso immensely.
Paul was Baer’s elementary school coach and later became his mentor in business decisions.
“Paul is definitely the business-savvy entrepreneur, and Judy is the wonderful mother who brings the customer service end of their team to the forefront,” Baer said.
The food is something that brings a lot of people in, whether locals or repeat Tahoe visitors.
A lot of things are made from scratch, including the signature gravy. Baer said one of Ernie’s breakfast classics is its Huevos Ernesto, a twist on huevos ranchero.
“It adds our homemade tostada meat on top of a tortilla, refried beans, cheese, eggs, salsa and sour cream,” Baer said.
Baer grew up knowing the Brusos, knew their children and the restaurant.
“I know how important it is to the community and knew it would be a lot of fun, hard work and a smart business decision,” Baer said.
Another Ernie’s mainstay is some of its employees.
Server Michele Barclay has been with the restaurant for 13 years, since she was 19.
“I love that I’ve gotten to watch customers grow up with me,” Barclay said. “I’ve watched kids graduate from high school, become part of their family, and I think they’ve become part of ours.”
She said that local people purchasing Ernie’s will be a solid plus for the community.
“Customers shouldn’t even notice the ownership has changed because everything will stay pretty much the same,” Barclay said.
Cook and operations manager Roger Sibley said change in ownership is a bittersweet occasion. Sibley has worked at Ernie’s during two different tours, one in the 1980s and again when Ernie’s moved to its new location in 2003.
“I’m sad to see these guys (Paul and Judy) go because they’re really good people and I’ve known them for a large portion of my life,” Sibley said. “On the other hand I’m very happy for them because they have a well-earned break coming up.”
He added that he is excited by the transition because Baer and Bergner are great people.
“I think the crew staying on will help the transition really well,” Sibley said. “It’s onward and upward by honoring the past while bringing some new things in.”
Bringing in new ideas is something that the new owners plan to introduce over time, according to Baer.
“We plan to keep the vast majority of that the same, with some small modifications over time to make it more authentic to who we are,” Baer said.
Baer noted that friends in the San Francisco Bay Area might consider the purchase easy to run.
While it might be mom and pop, Baer said there was more to the decision.
“To me it’s more like purchasing the entire Ferry Building in downtown San Francisco,” Baer said. “Everyone’s cycling through.”
Paul Bruso agrees with the concept.
“I think it’s going to be even better with two young guys who grew up here in South Lake Tahoe, with new blood and new ideas,” Paul Bruso said. “I’ve done my thing and we’ve been successful. We really appreciate the people who have supported and come here over the last 35 years.”
While they’re retiring from the restaurant, Paul and Judy still plan to call South Lake Tahoe home, especially since they met each other here and raised six children in town.
“We love Tahoe, and we’ll still be here eating breakfast,” Bruso said.