It proudly stands in the oldest community in the Santa Clarita Valley. Located in Newhall, The Original Saugus Café has served famed historical figures such as Theodore Roosevelt, John Wayne and Charlie Chaplin. Having been open since 1886, The Original Saugus Café is the oldest operating restaurant in Los Angeles County but despite centuries of success, faced threats of closure during the start of COVID-19.
After following a statewide mandate, the café closed its inside dining room and began operating with reduced hours in March 2020. Losing a majority of its clientele, the small business struggled to keep its doors open in the first few weeks of the pandemic alone.
“I don’t even think we were making like even $200 a day,” explained Yecenia Mercado, the café’s manager. “I would do like 10 tickets at most the whole day.”
Serving very few customers a day, the staff was uncertain of the café’s future.
“I was really scared of what could happen. I didn’t want to lose this place,” said Alejandra Mercado, the café’s waitress. “It was like a second home to me.”
Like millions of restaurants and small businesses nation-wide, The Original Saugus Café struggled to pay the cost of rent, utilities and staff in the first several months of the pandemic. However, management remained hopeful that financial issues would improve.
“I felt so bad but I also felt like well, we’re not alone in this like we’re literally not the only restaurant struggling so I know there has to be some type of help… like we’re going to get out of this. There’s no way all these restaurants are just going to close,” said Yecenia Mercado.
While financial issues did not immediately improve, the café saw hope in later months.
Yecenia Mercado was assisting an unidentified customer when he asked how the café’s business was doing. After hearing of its economic struggles, the man told Mercado that he would create a viral Facebook post, asking the community to support the café.
“I woke up that [next] morning to the Saugus Café going viral. The community was like we have to support the café and we are going to go in and place orders,” Yecenia Mercado said. “We had to bring in so much [people] that weren’t even working with us at the moment… we got bombarded with to go [orders] and had like counters with stacks of to go stuff.”
After the Facebook post went viral, The Original Saugus Café also received money requests from supporters who wanted to donate.
“That’s why I built a GoFundMe [page] at some point because people just wanted to give money,” Yecenia Mercado said. “They didn’t want to come and pick up food or they were too far to pick up the food… that was in [December] 2020.”
Donations from the GoFundMe page ultimately went to rent, utility and staff costs. The page has now been taken down but the Original Saugus Café feels eternally grateful for the community’s help.
“You can’t underestimate what people can do when they come together and I can’t explain how happy I am that we were able to pull through,” said Alejandra Mercado.
While The Original Saugus Café is continuing a 136-year-old legacy, the historical restaurant continues to deal with the effects of the pandemic.
“We have not seen the restaurant the same,” said Yecenia Mercado. “We’re still not as busy as before the pandemic, definitely… we haven’t seen a lot of our regular customers. So we’re hoping that they come out eventually so we can say hi to them.”