Birthday Breakfast at Sambo’s

On my fourth birthday my mom took me and my brother to have breakfast at my favorite place: Sambo’s. There were more locations, but we always frequented the one on McKee Road in our hometown of San Jose.

Back to that in a minute.

With its beginnings in 1957, the Sambo’s chain expanded to 1,117 restaurants in 47 states. By 1981, founders, Sam Battistone, Sr., and business partner, Newell Bohnett, began closing stores like hotcakes.

Its demise was largely due to a marketing campaign which enlisted the controversial character Sambo — a dark-skinned boy who was antagonized by tigers, but who would ultimately win the day.

Sambo’s attempt to use a heroic East Indian boy playing with tigers — in lieu of the original character — didn’t stack up. Over time, eleven hundred stores were reduced to one — in Santa Barbara. (Many of them were sold to Denny’s.)

Back to my birthday breakfast!

Shortly after receiving $20 from my mom as a gift, this conversation ensued:

Mom: Now that you have money, you can pay for your breakfast.
Mom: Okay?
Me: It’s okay, Mom. I’m really not hungry.

IT WAS A TRICK! My mom explained that she was only kidding! Miraculously, my appetite came back!

While I ate breakfast I often got lost in imagination while I stared at the scenes of the little boy and tigers that adorned the restaurant walls. My only wish was that the restaurant would change the scenes.

What I didn’t know is that an even bigger change was gonna come.

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