Looking back on... Stox Restaurant

DOWNEY - "Maurine - we're going into the restaurant business," shouted Harry, turning towards his wife. "I bought a dishwasher!"

With these words, Harry Fahnestock was finally on the verge of achieving his lifelong goal of opening up his own hamburger and pie shop. It was the early fifties when Fahnestock, an employee of a local, food service supply company, attended a regional convention for restaurateurs. Seeing a dishwasher on sale, Fahnestock bought it without hesitation. Though just a small feat, the purchase became the first of many for the aspiring entrepreneur who would soon transform a small, 20-stool hamburger stand in Huntington Park into two successful Stox restaurant locations, including one in Downey that continues to serve the same Fahnestock family recipes Harry introduced decades ago.

Virtually unchanged since the days of Fahnestock, Stox Restaurant, Bakery and Bar, located at 9518 E. Imperial Hwy, is now the oldest eating establishment in Downey. However, the 172-seat restaurant did not start in its current 8,500-square-foot building, but rather emerged after a series of pie shops opened by Fahnestock, a Los Angeles County transplant from Chadron, Nebraska.

After his high school graduation, Fahnestock was hired as a salesman by Axelson Manufacturing Co. where he met his wife, Maurine, then executive secretary to the company president. Together, the couple went to work, making Fahnestock's vision a reality.

On May 7, 1954, after nearly four months of hard labor each night by Fahnestock and his father, Ben, a skilled craftsman, a quaint, hamburger stand, located at 3053 Florence Ave. in Huntington Park, was ready for business. Fahnestock decided to call the new eatery, Stox, short for the German family name.

"Delightful Eating in a Pleasant Atmosphere" was Fahnestock's motto and in addition to the choice ground beef burgers, served for 50 cents, Stox offered locals potato salad, coleslaw, malts, shakes, and fresh homemade pies, which would become Stox's most popular menu item.

After just five years in Huntington Park, Fahnestock grew interested in the newly incorporated city of Downey. Harry Fahnestock Jr., 66, believes his father, hoping to expand the family business, wanted to bring his popular food items to a new, and larger, audience of customers.

"He wanted to get out of Huntington Park - it was getting older. He wanted to move Stox's where there was growth," said Fahnestock Jr., who graduated from Warren High School in 1962. "He found a place in Downey in 1959, a little strip shop on Firestone Boulevard. He rented two of the spaces there and opened Stox Pie Shop."

Fahnestock Sr. also moved his family to the area, purchasing and remodeling a home in south Downey, just west of Paramount Boulevard. However, once the new location, at 11215 Downey Ave., opened its doors, every Fahnestock family member was drafted to help.

"My father and mother were very hard working people. We really built that business up," said Fahnestock Jr. over the phone. "After school, my sister, Judy, would be a waitress and I would bus tables for three hours. At night, I'd go down there and be the janitor."

Unlike the Huntington Park location, Stox Pie Shop in Downey only served lunch items, specializing in sandwiches, coleslaw and potato salad. Soon Fahnestock began experimenting with his original pie recipes, adding different flavors and interesting combinations.

"We had our standard pies - fresh pumpkin pies, pecan, cream, strawberry - the recipes for the fillings were all of my mom and dad's," said Fahnestock Jr. "They were exquisite, made fresh daily…no fillers, no preservatives, no artificial whip cream.

"My dad was a perfectionist. The pie crust has to be just so, we had to use a certain glaze," he said. "If they weren't up to code, sometimes he'd dump them."

Hoping to create his own collection of specialty pies, Fahnestock Sr. crafted and introduced the Strawberry Hawaiian Cream pie, which included vanilla cream, strawberries, macadamia nuts, coconut and pineapple. The gourmet pie quickly became one of Stox's trademark desserts and remains a bestseller at Stox Restaurant today.

By the early 1960s, the small pie shop was exploding, gaining popularity and many positive reviews in the community, as a result Fahnestock and his wife decided to invest in a larger facility to house the growing restaurant. Soon after, property owner Ben Mooshegian offered Fahnestock a generous lease in a new building on the corner of Imperial Highway and Bellflower Boulevard, and the family business moved, opening Stox Restaurant in 1962.

"It was an immediate success," said Fahnestock who believes the restaurant benefited from its close proximity to North American Aviation. "We had the astronauts in quite frequently. When NASA was working on the Apollo Space Mission here, we'd get a pretty good size order of pies - they'd take them back to the Houston space center."

In December of 1967, the Fahnestocks opened a second establishment in Anaheim, called Mr. Stox Restaurant, requiring several employees, including Fahnestock Jr., to travel between the two locations. After many years operating both sites, Fahnestock Sr. decided to sell both locations and retired from the restaurant business.

"He knew I wasn't keen on staying in the business. He knew sooner or later I would move on. It wasn't my passion," said Fahnestock, who now lives in Reno, Nevada. "It was time to sell."

In 1974, the Fahnestocks sold the Downey location to Ken Babajian, and three years later Mr. Stox Restaurant in Anaheim was sold to brothers Ron and Chick Marshall, who still own and manage the restaurant.

Today, Stox Restaurant in Downey is owned by Jack Wannebo, who acquired the eatery from Babajian more than 20 years ago. He admits that the aging restaurant is struggling like other dining establishments, but he remains hopeful that the landmark will withstand the sluggish economy.

"You don't want to go into the restaurant business right now," he said. "This summer, we had the worst 20 weeks we've ever had. It's tough, the demographics are changing, but we've got three and four generations coming in now. We know the name or face of 80 percent of the people that come in here - it really is a second home to our patrons.

"There's not a place like this anymore…where you can have a good breakfast, a quiet lunch or an afternoon drink," said Wannebo. "We've survived when others haven't; it's a good format. People want good quality food at the best price. That's what Mr. Fahnestock did, that's what we'll continue to do."

********** Published: December 16, 2010 - Volume 9 - Issue 35