FLAGSTAFF –The husband and wife stand side by side at a stove that stretches the length of the kitchen.
Warmth surrounds them as the smells of frying meat, browning onions and freshly cut vegetables waft into the dining room, where people have begun to take seats for the lunch hour Thursday.
They work efficiently — him frying up the chicken fried steaks and working the grill top, her tossing vegetables around in a wok.
For 30 years, Fred “Freddy” Wong and his wife Tina have done this work, and the business has been continuously open in Flagstaff a total of 70 years this month. It’s birthday time.
“It opened Dec. 18, 1942, but it wasn’t with our family until 1945,” Wong says, holding a copy of the newspaper announcing the cafe’s opening. His father Albert, brothers Edward and Alfred, and a nephew, Bill Yee, pitched in to buy the space, which was about half the size it is now. Fred’s father, who worked cooking Chinese food in Durango, Colo., wanted to go into business for himself.
The restaurant has been in the same spot ever since. The wall that separated the old Harkey’s Cash Market was knocked down sometime after World War II to expand the place.
What’s the secret to their success? Ask the locals.
“There’s just so much history here,” says John Harkey (whose grandfather ran the market). “But the main draw is Freddy and Tina and the friendly atmosphere.”
He, his brother Ken and friend Bill Henson are taking a break from refurbishing a family home on Cherry at Sitgreaves that’s been in the family since the 1920s. They sit at the “liar’s table” reserved for hunting and fishing friends of Fred, who is a hunting and fishing enthusiast himself.
Ken says he’s been coming for decades. A retired teacher, he began coming as a Friday morning tradition back in the late 1980s.
“I’ve been a regular ever since,” Ken says. “The company is wonderful. It’s a family.”
Henson chimes in, “And so’s the chicken fried steak.”
Guests range from a local neurosurgeon to a homeless man who gets fed three meals a day by Fred and Tina. Different days bring in different regulars.
Conversations range beyond hunting and fishing, John says. Fred likes to talk about his current passion for organic gardening at his place down in the Verde Valley. History is also a topic.
“And when you look at Flagstaff, there’s not a lot of old timers left,” John said.
“I’ve worked here since I was 6 or 7 years old,” Fred says, adding that he used to come in and peel potatoes, and when he got older, wash dishes. Summers were time to work in the restaurant. In 1980, his father retired.
“So, I just continued it,” he says, smiling. “I’ve been here a long time.”
Tina gets up every morning to help him. They work the restaurant six days a week, 13 hours a day.
Tina says, “I like it here because I get to meet people, talk to people, make friends.”
The height of the Route 66 days, with droves of tourists passing through on the way to Vegas, sat the cafe pretty, with silver dollar payments from hungry patrons, Fred says. Then, Interstate 40 bypassed the city and much of the Route 66 tourist traffic moved.
The locals, and customers from the reservations, help keep the place going.
“People still tell me their grandfathers used to bring them in here,” Fred says.
And besides the locals, people from all over the world come to the cafe for the grub, particularly the chicken fried steak, Fred says. The cafe is regularly featured in cookbooks, news articles and has been memorialized several times in Arizona Highways. Scenes for two films have been shot inside the cafe.
“Somehow, we keep plugging along,” Fred says.
What’s the secret to the food?
Fresh ingredients, Fred says.
“It’s home cooking,” Tina says.
They do all of the prep work and cooking, Fred says. It keeps the overhead low. Tina’s specialty is the Chinese food items on the menu. They do all of their eating at the restaurant, so they don’t cook at home and don’t have much in their refrigerator. They learn from each other and continually compare and improve on recipes.
What’s it like working all day with a spouse?
Tina laughs hard and says, “That’s complicated.”
They worked their three kids in the restaurant, but none of them has expressed an interest in taking over in the future. They all have their own lives outside of Flagstaff.
“They say it’s too much work,” Fred says. “And it’s true.”
He adds that he has thoughts of selling the business. At 64, he still has a couple of years of work left in him before retirement.
“Then, we’ll see what happens after that,” he says.
If or when he does, he would like to see somebody buy it who is interested in keeping the downtown flair.
His thought on running his restaurant for the last 30 years: “It’s been good. I’ve met a lot of people. I’ve made a lot of friends.”