Arthur still feisty as ever

Restaurateur Arthur Fast gained notoriety in 1999 when he fought City Hall over a rooftop sign he'd had for more than 20 years. As tiffs with City Hall go, however, this one battle he lost, but as far as he was concerned, he won the war. He said he felt he was in the right, fighting for principle.In any case, he gained enormous publicity over the brouhaha. John Adams labeled him 'feisty', his loyal customers anointed him a minor hero. The episode got coverage as well in the Los Angeles Times and the Press-Telegram. The case resonates to this day. The rooftop sign in question was an 11-ft. marquee that was perched atop his restaurant at Lakewood Blvd. and Telegraph Rd., said to be in violation of a city ordinance the city hadn't enforced for years. To make the story short, Art had to find out for himself you really can't fight City Hall. His eatery, which began as an Orange Julius stand in 1961, has continued to flourish through good times and bad. Its continued success may be attributed to his focus on good quality food ("I grind all my meat, been making fresh hamburgers for 40 years") keeping his prices down, and service with a smile. It celebrates its 50th anniversary in July next year. He's established and/or operated other Arthur's restaurants as well. The one on Lakewood Blvd. and Cleta St. served the thousands of Rockwell personnel c. '80s and early '90s, along with a high-end, white table-cloth coffee shop, the Coffee Caper. When his regular clients couldn't charge off their expenses any longer, business slowed. And when thousands of Rockwell staff got laid off, it spelled the end of prosperity for his restaurant. In the meantime, he had given an Arthur's in the city of Orange and another one about six years later in La Habra for one of his twin sons, Brian, to run. The Tustin Avenue Arthur's Brian sold about 10 years ago to his former manager there. Brian continues to operate Arthur's in La Habra. Twin brother Gregory is a computer consultant in Denver, Colo. For years just serving breakfast and lunch, Arthur's in Downey started offering dinner in February. His drive-thru service accounts for 1/3 of his business, he said, and catering 5 percent. He has a staff of nine full-time, and three part-time employees. He said four of his cooks have served with him a combined total of 84 years, and four of his waitresses a combined 40 years. Ever the playful one, with a joke or two to regale everybody he encounters, Art says, "I have two basic, simple rules: quick and perfect." This sounds like Einstein's formula reformulated but he was on target: precision and speed will win out over anything. Art was born to Mennonite parents on Feb. 28, 1929 (that makes him 81 on his last birthday) in Corn, Oklahoma, a tiny farm community that is closer to Amarillo, Texas than it is to Oklahoma City, some 40 miles away to the east. (He went to school with John Denver's dad, later a backup pilot to the Enola Gay crew).Afflicted with wanderlust, he never got through the 9th grade, the farm boy enlisting in the Army by lying about his age. He was 15, but growing up on the farm had given him an 18-year-old lad's look. His dad always said to him that he was the cause of the Great Depression. He took paratroop training in Fort Benning, Georgia. Three days before they were to ship out for D-Day, his mother was able to track him down, ending his Army adventure. By this time he said he had made nine parachute jumps, and earned his wings. After working at odd jobs, he eventually hired on in sales and marketing with Campbell-Soup here in the Southland. There was a shortage of manpower then, he said. One day he found out by chance that his boss was planning to transfer him to headquarters at Camden, N.J. He and his wife decided against it, preferring the California climate. Shortly thereafter, he jumped into the food and beverage business. He said he's a graduate of the school of hard knocks, as likely to turn serious and offer his recipe for success ("Enjoy what you're doing," and "Work at it") as to crack a joke: "An Oriental eye doctor once said to his patient, 'You have a cataract'. 'No, doc,' said the patient, 'I drive a Rincoln.'" And "I have big tires in the back, smaller tires in the front, that's why I keep going downhill." Art lost his first wife 20 years ago, and he has since remarried, to 34-year old Arcy who works in the restaurant and is four months pregnant (on doctors' advice, something to do with overcoming an anemic condition). Art himself is far from anemic, still charming his customers, ever ready with a joke, ever the maverick, his head filled with business ideas.

********** Published: April 9, 2010 - Volume 8 - Issue 51