Laura Marble, LMarble@ExplorerNews.com
Nov. 30, 2005 - On the morning after Thanksgiving, not a single parking space was available in front of Jerry Bobs Family Restaurant on Thornydale Road. Hungry customers stood in the parking lot waiting to eat and also crowded inside the front door.
The home-style diner's sales have gone up 12 percent each year since it opened in 2003, as have the sales at another Jerry Bobs near Oracle and Magee roads for the past three years, said Jerry Bob Filson, who has opened seven restaurants since 1994. Some loyal customers show up every morning.
In a metropolitan area full of national chain restaurants including IHOP and Denny's, how does this local breakfast and lunch chain compete?
Filson said it's by keeping prices low.
"If you can get the $1.99 breakfast special and at IHOP the same thing is $5.39, where are you going to go?" he said.
Jerry Bobs is home to the $1.99 breakfast, a meal consisting of two eggs and one side item that Oro Valley founding father and town historian Jim Kriegh said he gets once a week on Tuesdays, with some extras, when he goes with friends to the restaurant and shares a two-for-one meal coupon.
"The young men that cook in the back are good cooks so their food is good and it's very reasonable in price," he said.
The first Jerry Bobs restaurant opened in 1994 on Speedway Boulevard after Filson, who had opened two Chuy's restaurants in Tucson and had 20 years of experience working for national chains, decided he wanted to venture out on his own. He knew of a spot in Texas named Billy Bob's, and he thought his own name had enough character to catch on.
"I thought, 'Jerry Bobs: That's kind of catchy and Southern," he said.
It seemed risky venturing out alone, knowing he'd have to borrow a big chunk of money so he could guarantee his leases, he said, but it was a risk he was willing to take.
"I wanted to do it bad enough so I guess I was totally confident that somehow I would make it work," he said, even if that meant working daily as a chef, and at first it did. "I was totally confident but scared as hell."
The economy began to boom in the late 1990s, Filson said, and he was able to open a new restaurant about every two years. Even the World Trade Center bombing and subsequent downturn in the economy didn't hurt the restaurant, he said.
"It took the wind out of dinner restaurants, but it didn't affect us," he said. "People still had to work and went out for breakfast and lunch."
This year, a Fry's grocery store vacated its spot in a shopping center at Oracle and Magee shared by one of the Northwest's two Jerry Bobs restaurants, but that didn't hurt business, Filson said.
"It didn't have one bit of impact on it," he said. "We didn't understand why, but we've been there six years and I guess people know we're there even though we're hidden in the corner."
Kriegh is one customer who began going to Jerry Bob's because he did his shopping at Fry's restaurant, but he has continued going there because he has preferred eating at the diner to cooking at home since his wife's death.
"Its liver and onions with green beans and salad approximates a home-cooked meal for me," he said.
Emily Ewing, a retired Marana resident, said she started going to the Jerry Bobs on Thornydale when it first opened in 2003 and is there every morning eating at the counter. When it moved in, the nearby McDonald's and IHOP stopped getting her business, she said.
"McDonald's doesn't have a counter, and this is more like family," she said. "Everybody asked how my Thanksgiving turkey was yesterday."
Not only does she get personal attention at the restaurant, she said, she also gets good deals including the $1.99 breakfast.
"McDonald's would charge you more for a comparable meal," she said.
Filson said the Thornydale restaurant is probably going to make $750,000 in sales this year, which he said is rare for a restaurant that is open only for breakfast and lunch.
"I don't know how they can possibly do the volume they do on Sundays," he said. "We've got 75 seats and a patio, and somehow they just crank people through there."
Filson, who owns the two Northwest restaurants and the one on Broadway but has sold the other four, said an eighth Jerry Bobs is expected to open in March or April in Green Valley. He said he would like to see a new Jerry Bobs open near the new Basha's under construction in Catalina, as well.
No matter how the local chain grows, Filson said he wants the restaurant to continue making its mark by offering low prices.
"I tell people we're the Wal-Mart of the breakfast business," he said.