Cold indifference. It’s everywhere. Walking down the street, shopping at the grocery store, going to events. Strange faces are not friends, they are something to avoid — even saying “excuse me” seems to require too much effort these days. And such is the way of the world. At the Vagabond Coffee Shop in Downtown Ventura, however, there is an undeniable warmth that is hard to find elsewhere.
Perhaps it’s in the name, vagabond: a person who wanders from place to place without a home or job, a word without pretense or expectations and a coffee shop that carries the same motto.
While there is undeniable care in the upkeep of the shop, worn carpet routinely replaced with new as needed, well-maintained but modest tables and booths and an organized kitchen with a streamlined operation, the staff seem to have a rare sense of humanity that elevates even the most downtrodden. It’s clear to see that the restaurant serves as a place of intermittent rest and community for so many in a world prolific in its disconnect from other humans.
Sitting with Jolene McBee, 74, owner of the coffee shop’s lease that expires Jan. 31 after 52 years (the last day will be Jan. 1), it’s easy to recognize what she, her longtime staff and the landmark restaurant mean to so many. Since the announcement of the closure in early December, there’s been an outpouring of support, locals visiting for the final time, patron after patron lining up to talk to her, to hug her, to wish her farewell in her retirement. Many are also dismayed over the plans for the future of the beloved diner.
“There’s sadness,” said McBee, who had plans to retire in January as she knew the lease was going to expire. In the last year, she’d also started having health issues that made her dependent on a walker. McBee had hoped to pass the baton to Chef Christopher Castillo, who has worked in some capacity at the Vagabond since 1970, when he started as a dishwasher. He had intended to carry on the traditions of the restaurant, maintaining its decades-old recipes and keeping the longstanding wait staff on board to serve Vagabond Inn guests as well as regulars who have made the coffee shop a part of their routine for decades.
Those plans were not in line with the wishes of the corporate entity behind the Vagabond chain.
McBee said (and explained in a letter to her customers) that Vista Investments (which runs several Vagabond Inns and Coffee Shops) had “no interest” in hiring any of her staff to run the restaurant. After Jan. 31, the restaurant will close for remodeling and will reopen with a new chef, according to the Vista Investments, LLC, Facebook page:
“We’ve always planned on honoring the Vagabond Coffee Shop’s local favorites and sourcing their ingredients from Ventura County family farms.
“To bring this potent blend to the table we’ve turned to a Ventura based Chef who resided in the community for eight years along with his wife and two children. He has a long history of creating traditional American style favorites made with flavorful local ingredients. He’s especially excited about utilizing the local produce and building relationships with the Vagabond Coffee Shop’s regulars.”
While the post relays that it wants to stay focused on quality food and ingredients, it doesn’t address or ease any concerns about the longtime staff who aren’t sure they will even have a job to return to. That includes Castillo, who said he did talk to corporate at one point about his plans. There were no further discussions after that call.
“I figured I would have an opportunity to buy it,” Castillo said, who had set his hopes on owning and running the Vagabond Coffee Shop after McBee retired, a dream he has had for 10 years. Prior to the Vagabond, Castillo had worked in the local oil industry. “I would have never stuck with it that long, I would have done something else if I knew. I’ve been here so long, being here for four generations — hard to walk away, I don’t know how to take it.”
He was also reluctant about returning to a similar position after he had set his hopes on running the restaurant.
“It would be very hard to take a job here,” he said.
A similar sentiment was shared among the servers. With 27 staff, nearly all, if not all, of the servers have been working at the Vagabond for over a decade. Some are going on 20, 30, 40 years.
Leslie Garrett, 68, sat at the Vagabond counter on her day off, next to Jolene, reflecting on her 28 years there.
“I’m not happy, you know, not at all. I can’t imagine Ventura without the Vagabond. I knew nothing else, good or bad,” Garrett said. “My son is 41, was raised in this place, since 8 or 9, and my grandchildren and great-grandkids are all local. My adopted grandson worked here. It’s my security, it’s my identity, my family, it’s everything. Never a dull moment.”
She noted she was especially fond of the waffles — “The only thing I ate for seven years.”
Server Vicki Hannigan, McBee’s daughter, started 40 years ago in 1978.
“I have quit and come back,” she said. “I have no idea [what happens next].”
Server Chris Frank started working at the Vagabond in 1988. While busy on her shift at the time of this interview, she expressed similar concerns about the future of the Vagabond and that customers are also having emotional reactions.
Darl Lorelli, a Ventura resident who retired from the Ventura Unified School District in October, has been coming to the Vagabond for 25 years.
“It feels like home,” Lorelli said, noting that “it feels like I am losing a part of my family.” He said that he would not return to the new Vagabond, whatever that will be.
Sandy Scholle, 65, and John Stanewich, 68, have been regulars since they were kids.
“I have been coming here since I was 13 years old — we lived in Somis and we drove over here and would go to church in Ventura.”
Stanewich, who was also working on a window mural featuring a hobo for Christmas, had been “coming here since fifth grade.”
They both acknowledged that change is inevitable. But neither would say it was good.
As McBee prepares for the final days of the Vagabond Coffee Shop as she knows it, she talked about a couple of memorable instances in her career. One, a server whom she tried to train but who just couldn’t keep up with the duties. McBee said that she told her to “just keep trying.” Decades later, the former trainee returned and told McBee that she never forgot her and her words of wisdom: Just keep trying.
Another memory was of a local homeless woman.
“We have a big homeless population,” McBee said. “Four years ago one lady that would come smelled to high heaven, would order food and pay for it and wait outside. The lady said, ‘You know, you’re not mean to the homeless. I know I smell. You have always been good to us…’ And she did that her own.”
The future of the Vagabond as a place of respite is uncertain and, as a place of employment for the current staff, is also unclear. As it goes with change, sometimes it’s a win, and sometimes it’s a mistake that can’t be remedied. Many customers have stated that they will not return due to the apparent callousness toward what had been established there for decades.
“They will come in and do a bit of remodeling, that’s going to happen,” McBee said, but “Nothing is written in stone.”
The Vagabond Coffee Shop will be hosting its annual Christmas Ventura County foster children fundraiser Thursday, Dec. 13 from 5 a.m. until 9 a.m. It will also have its annual and final special menu item of Christopher Castillo’s black eyed peas, a tradition famed to bring good luck,all day Jan. 1, closing day.
MEMORIES OVER THE DECADES
“It was a rite of passage.”
Ventura resident Tammy Calhoun lived on the Westside and Pierpont as a child, but to hear her tell it, she “practically grew up at the Vagabond.” Her mom, Peggy Shelton, was a go-go dancer who performed on military bases. As the Vagabond was one of the few places open 24 hours in the 1960s and 1970s, it was a favorite haunt for her and the other dancers, and Shelton would often bring her children there as well.
But her most vivid memory was her very first cup of coffee, which she had at the Vagabond in 1977 when she was 9 years old. In Calhoun’s family, “it was a rite of passage.”
Through the years, Calhoun and her family would frequent the Vagabond for every major event: Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, birthdays and Sunday brunch and even family reunions. The meal of choice was always breakfast — sausage and eggs with hash browns and the biscuits and gravy were the most popular dishes.
Calhoun worked in a similar establishment (the Woolworth Cafe) as a young woman, and modeled herself after the old-school Vagabond waitresses. They were a hard-working, no-nonsense bunch who never called in sick and never minced words. “But when they loved you, they loved you forever,” she recalls. Calhoun credits them with helping to develop her own work ethic, which led her to build a successful real estate business, Comstock and Calhoun (which, not incidentally, is just a few blocks from the Vagabond). “I really believe they had a powerful influence,” she says.
What also stands out for Calhoun is the wait staff’s rough-edged compassion. When her own waitressing shift was done, she’d often sit at the Vagabond counter, nursing a cup of coffee — especially when she had nowhere else to go. “Those gruff old broads kept me in line,” she admitted. But they also didn’t turn her away. In many ways, the Vagabond was a refuge for the lonely, the lost, those adrift socially . . . and, often, inebriated. “It’s where you went to sober up,” Calhoun recalls. “And those gals wouldn’t let you drive if you were drunk.”
Owner Jolene McBee cared about her community, and nowhere did this spirit shine through more than during the Thomas Fire. Firefighters and police officers that came through her door were fed for free, “and she did the same thing for people who lost their homes.”
Now a mother herself, the Vagabond has figured prominently in Calhoun’s own family traditions. All four of her children — Ashley, 30; Chris, 27; and twins Lily and Ivy, 13 — have had their first cups of coffee (at age 10) at the Vagabond and have spent many a meal enjoying its vintage ambience, classic diner fare and “gruff old broads.” The twins have a particularly strong association with it: Calhoun dined there nearly every week during her pregnancy (she often craved the biscuits and gravy) and owner Jolene and her staff delighted in watching her belly grow, doted on the newborns and warmly embraced the girls as they grew into young adults. Calhoun estimates that Lily and Ivy have been to the Vagabond at least two times a week since they were born, and their photos — including sonograms — adorn the restaurant’s walls.
Calhoun remembers when the previous owner, Mac, ran the place, with Jolene as his right-hand woman and partner until his death (she took over officially after that). “She ran the show for years,” she says. “I know she needs to retire.”
But she hates to imagine that the place that was such an integral part of her life will be dramatically changed, or closed altogether.
“I don’t want the Vagabond to go away,” she says sadly, “and I don’t want those waitresses to lose their jobs. This is my childhood and my children’s childhood and my mother’s youth!”
But mostly, she’ll miss the feeling she had whenever she went.
“It felt safe. It’s home.” — Tammy Calhoun, as told to Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer
“You always felt at home.”
“Needless to say I was shocked by the news of the Vagabond closing and so soon. When my daughter, Linda, told me the news, I could not believe it. I guess like everyone else in Ventura and the surrounding area, the news came as a complete surprise and an unpleasant one at that!
“The Vagabond has been there on Thompson Street forever or so it seems, especially to those of us who have frequented it over the years. I could write a lot of stories about the times both me and my family have been there. We always got served in a timely manner and the food was always good and quantities were more than enough. The waitresses were usually friendly and most of them had a quick wit and left you smiling or laughing.
“One of the most memorable times I remember being at the Vagabond is the day of the 1994 Northridge earthquake. I think everyone remembers the earthquake that year, at least everyone who was living in Ventura and Los Angeles areas.
“My daughter Linda and I lived in the same apartment complex and so that morning after I had been wakened by the noise and shaking of the bed around 4:30 a.m., I was in a state of shock. Around 6 a.m., Linda called me to make sure I was OK. Shortly after, she arrived at my door with a worried expression on her face. Neither of us had electricity and so being that we were addicted to caffeine, we decided to walk down the street to see if the Vagabond was open. The Vagabond was our “go to” place almost any time we needed comfort food and coffee.
“As we walked, there were not many people around and the few who were wore anxious expressions on their faces. When we got to the Vagabond, it looked closed, but after a closer look we could see people sitting in the booths. We went in and although the place was dim, we could smell coffee brewing and food cooking. The receptionist assured us that there was a limited menu and they had coffee brewing. It smelled heavenly at that point and we managed to get a seat right away and placed our order, which included coffee of course.
“We settled in and after a few sips of coffee, we felt comfortable and at home. That’s the feeling we liked about the Vagabond. You always felt at home. I know I will miss going there.” — Marion Glennon
“Those happy memories will last forever.”
“Some of my fondest memories of my late Grandpa Bob were made at the Vagabond. I was only about 10 years old when he started bringing me for French dips, curly fries and always a hot chocolate extra whipped cream no matter what time of day. Twenty years later and I can still see us sitting at our booth in front of the counter, clear as day. Those happy memories will last forever.” — Rebecca Castro
“A much needed hug”
“My family and I have been regulars at the Vagabond for over 20 years.
“My kids grew up with Jolene’s grandkids, and every time I go in, it is like visiting family. Here is an example of how special the Vagabond and the staff are: My best friend was in surgery at county for pancreatic cancer. My daughter and I were of course very stressed out and worried. In hard times, we always, always would go to the Vagabond for some friendship and comfort food. There we were, our food had just arrived, when I got the call from the surgeon that the operation was of no use and my friend only had a few weeks to live. My daughter and I both burst into tears. Without a word being said, our waitress (I think it was Sharon) walked over, took our food and boxed it up, and gave us a much-needed hug. THIS is the Vagabond. I can’t believe it will be gone.” — Sarah
“My girlfriend and my best friend’s sister decided all of a sudden, one day, that they wanted to get all ‘seckshull’ with each other, so they asked us to go away for a little while. Give them some privacy and all that. So we went to the Vagabond and had some pie.” — Jay Windsor, Ojai
“Twin Peaksy-est of them all”
Just like so many other Venturans (and former Venturans), my heart cracked in two when I heard The Vagabond was closing. It felt as if I was losing an old, quirky friend I’d shared many precious memories with; a friend I’d taken for granted would be around forever.
Back in the days of Warrens, Loops and the White Bib there was never a loss for a good, Lynchian place to duck into and partake of tasty comfort food. Once they all disappeared for one reason or another, The Vagabond, Twin Peaksy-est of them all, still remained. There you could always depend on a range of wait staff from sweet to surly, offering chicken fried steak, Hobo Breakfast, and damn good coffee.
In the ’80s The Vagabond was open 24 hours. This made it the perfect hang out after a late night of carousing the cool music venues once plentiful in Downtown Ventura. With eyes burning from smoking section waft, I’d table-hop to chat with fellow revelers, then top off the night with something grilled and cheese laden.
Very few weekends went by without a trip to the Vagabond for breakfast with friends, family, or maybe alone with a good book. Sometimes my breakfasts would be under less typical circumstances. Like when the city of Ventura tried having the Fourth of July fireworks show at 5 a.m. Some of us diehards got up, watched the show through blurry eyes and then groggily walked to the Vagabond for a post-fireworks snack.
Right after the Northridge earthquake in 1994, my mom and I, once assured we were safe, became painfully aware of our caffeine deficit! The power was out and having all electric kitchens in our respective apartments meant we were coffee-less. Optimistically we trudged a couple blocks down to The Vagabond. There like a port in the storm was our old friend, open for business via generator power. There in the dimly lit restaurant we enjoyed coffee and a sense of community with other distressed and disoriented people who had gathered to commiserate about the quake… and did I mention coffee!
For me it feels especially poignant that Jan. 1 will be the last day. Many years I found myself on New Year’s Day, at the Vagabond, attempting to undo the effects of the night before with a sumptuous chicken fried steak breakfast. Arguably the best in the world – Certainly in Ventura. Although I don’t partake of that particular delicacy any longer, I feel the need to go back at least one more time to reminisce while enjoying one of their generously hearty breakfasts. And despite the fact that she doesn’t really know me, I’d like to say good-bye to Jolene and wish her a lovely retirement. I’d also want to thank her for providing Ventura with a place where sense of community, family and good, hearty food were always a mainstay.
Good-bye Old Vagabond, old friend. — Linda Silvestri
Letter to my customers
It is with a heavy heart that I am writing this letter. I have been at Vagabond for almost 44 years. During that time, I have met many, many wonderful people. People that have become not only my loyal and loving customers, but also my dear friends. Many of whom have become like family to me. I met my late husband, Mac, here and together we carried on this business and made a good living for us and our children. Our children were raised in this restaurant, as were our grandchildren and now our great grandchildren.
But, like most everything in life, there are changes coming. My lease will expire on January 31st, 2019. It will not be renewed by the property owners and they are not interested in leasing the building to any of my staff at this time. Unfortunately, I am not able to devote the strength and energy needed to tend to the business efficiently, even if a lease renewal was an option. I have mobility issues that have gotten worse over the past few years. Anyone who has seen me walking around at the restaurant knows what I am talking about. So, I am just as ready to call it a day as the owners are ready for me to do so.
So, here is the kicker. We will be closing our restaurant on January 1st, 2019. I call it OUR restaurant because it has always been a great place, OUR PLACE, for family and friends to gather to meet and eat and enjoy each other’s company, in good times, in bad times and even in sad times. We have all been thru so much together over the years. We, as friends and family, have stuck together thru thick and thin and THAT is what has made this place so very special to me and to so many others. It has been such a warm and wonderful and fun place to be. Vagabond Coffee Shop! There will not soon be another place that can even compare! If ever!
Thank all of you so very, very much for all the love and support that you have shown to me, my family and my employees over the years. I wish everyone that has ever come into contact with me, all the very best hat life has to offer. Try not to be sad or unhappy as this is just another chapter in our lives. Thank you all, from the bottom of my heart, for the many, many blessing I have received from you.
I will look for you on New Years Day!!! Come in and have some Black-Eyed Pease to ensure good luck thru out the new year!!
Sincerely, with love and good wishes to all. Jolene McBee.
P.S. The restaurant will re-open after a bit of remodeling and it will be under new management.. Please go and check it out and give the new guys a chance to impress you.”