Rosie’s Cafe hasn’t had much success as an actual eatery, but it has become something of a cause celebre and a virtual hit on television thanks to TV makeover chef Robert Irvine and his Food Network’s “Restaurant: Impossible” show.
The televised journey into somethingness continues at 9 p.m. Thursday May 28 with a 60-minute special on The Food Network. Check your local listings for channels.
This latest installment in the Rosie’s Cafe saga was recorded during a fundraising extravaganza held Feb. 17 at Grand Avenue and Maple Street, downtown Escondido.
The carnival had a New Jersey theme, in honor of Cafe owner Kaitlyn Rose “Rosie” Pilsbury’s heritage, and included food booths, arcade games and rides. General admission tickets were $20. Children under 3 were free. All proceeds went to the Pilsbury family.
The event itself raised over $120,000 for Pilsbury, 33. Of that, The Food Network donated $50,000 and Irvine donated $20,000.
Rosie was struck by a white Ford Explorer while she was riding her Harley Davidson motorcycle through Vista just before last Christmas. The hit-and-run driver veered his SUV into her at a gas station intersection and fled on foot. He has not been caught.
However, Rosie’s injuries were serious to the max. She was in coma for some time. ith a serious head injury and broken bones in her legs and one arm. After three months in the hospital and numerous surgeries, she was released to outpatient physical therapy in late February.
Irvine originally hooked up with Rosie in January 2019 when his restaurant makeover show visited the Cafe and did it’s thing.
In an interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune last April, Irvine said that reinventing Rosie’s Cafe at 117 W. Grand Ave. was one of his favorite episodes of “Restaurant: Impossible,”a series that aired on Food Network from 2011 to 2016 and then re-launched last spring with the Rosie’s episode as its premiere. The British chef is known for his tough-as-nails personality and he said Pilsbury was equally tough and resistant to change, but he eventually won her over.
“Makeovers are tough, period, but this one was tough emotionally because I truly believe in her and she’s inspiring to me. It’s the first one in many episodes where I really wanted her to succeed. I wanted to teach her. I wanted to get through to her,” Irvine said.
The Rosie’s makeover involved upgrading the menu, raising the prices to a sustainable level and giving the restaurant a new identity inspired by Pilsbury’s personal story and New Jersey heritage. In the months after the episode aired, business improved, according to the Union-Tribune.
Some regulars had complained online about the higher food prices and the loss of some favorite menu items. In the fall, Pilsbury hired a new kitchen manager, brought back some of the old menu items, expanded the shop’s pie-baking program and had introduced weekly barbecue and live music nights.
And the future, Carnac the Magnificent
Rosie’s future, in real ife, appears to have come to an end. Coronavirus turned that trick. Rosie’s shut down for late February and early March. Staff re-opened the restaurant for a week in March, then closed without a re-opening date on March 25.
The phone number for the restaurant is no longer operational, according to The San Diego Union Tribune. On Thursday, the restaurant remained locked with no signs announcing a reopening. Two repairmen could be seen working in the kitchen.
Asked about Pilsbury, Irvine told The Union Tribune he has stayed in close touch with her via text and said she is making a slow but steady recovery.
“I talk to her every couple of days and to her mom. She sends me goofy texts. She’s getting there. It will take a while. It wasn’t a scratch, it was a really bad accident. She is being the person that she is, fighting every day,” Irvine said.
Pilsbury couldn’t be reached for comment, but on April 3 she wrote a blog postsaying: “I have been maintaining a slow and steady pace to my new life. I have a long road ahead of me but I am motivated, grateful and willing to do all that I need to do, to get where I want to be for a healthy life.”
Thursday’s episode is one of just seven Irvine was able to complete of a planned 13-episode 2020 season before the pandemic shut down restaurants nationwide. He said the pandemic’s impact on the restaurant industry was like a tsunami that may permanently shutter up to 40 percent of the nation’s eateries. He said most small mom-and-pop operations like Rosie’s don’t have the cash reserves to survive a prolonged shutdown like this.
On the series over the past 17 seasons, Irvine has helped rescue more than 100 financially struggling family-run restaurants with tough talk and a $10,000 makeover. On the episode featuring Rosie’s last year, Irvine clashed frequently with the strong-willed Pilsbury but eventually convinced her to raise her prices, upgrade her menu and bring her own Jersey roots into the food and decor. It became one of viewers’ favorite episodes of the 2019 season. He said the series, especially this week’s episode featuring Rosie’s, offers feel-good television during a difficult time.
“The anger, frustration, sadness and joy all mixed together make for an amazing TV show,” he said.
Bit of Rosie’s backstory
Rosie’s transformation into new Rosie’s on Restaurant Impossible ended Friday, Jan. 11, 2019, following three days of Chef(?) Irvine’s makeovers. He spent one day getting the lay of the land, then put his crew to work for 36 hours before the cafe re-opened. The show aired last April as the kick-off for the show’s 14th season on The Food Network.
Rosie’s Cafe opened in December 2016. Rose was an Oceanside resident formerly attached to French Bakery Cafe, a well-known bakery and fancy American comfort food spot off East Vista Way in Vista.
The 117 W. Grand Avenue location had been owned and operated as a restaurant since at least the early 1920s. Hoffman’s Pharmacy was across the street. JC Penney was down the block.
“It started out as a cafe known as the ‘Chat ’n’ Chew,’ then changed hands and names several times before it was taken over in the 1970s by Ted and Violet McCain, who introduced Ted’s grandfather’s signature cinnamon rolls to his customers,” according to Pam Kragen in the San Diego Union Tribune.
Enter Oscar and Eva Champion, who turned it into Champion’s Family Restaurant.
Champion’s old menu read like a trip down memory lane with page after page — 28 pages in all — of historic photos and references mixed with food choices and history.
“There have been millions of cups of coffee served at 117 Grand Avenue for the past ninety years,” the menu, with page after page of food choices and historical photos, said. “First called the ‘Chat-o-Chow,’ the lunch counter served as the center of the city gossip and small town politics from 1923, when Escondido’s population was 1,734 residents, to 1948.