The bright blue Baker, California, landmark is as busy as ever
Against all odds, 28-year old road trip icon The Mad Greek rakes in $4 million a year. Yes, that’s big money for any restaurant in this day and age — but it’s especially impressive for an aging diner with sky high operating costs that trades in a style of food that’s languished for years elsewhere in greater Southern California. Not to mention it’s positioned in the midst of a nearly inhabitable climate: in the high desert between Las Vegas and Nevada. Despite incredible odds, owner Larry Dabour keeps his family business’s status as a juggernaut in itinerant dining alive. How? Travel to the source to find out.
Leave at the wrong time, and the slow commute back to Southern California from Las Vegas can feel like a special kind of torture. For long stretches along the California-Nevada border, there is little but scrub brush and distant mountains, punctuated occasionally by exit signs completely devoid of vowels.
And then you get to Baker, California. The one-strip gas station town of under 600 people serves mostly as a refueling and fast food stop — save for two things. The first is the iconic and hard-to-miss World’s Tallest Thermometer, a 134-foot-tall ode to the searing heat of Death Valley. The second is The Mad Greek.
Everyone who has made the drive between greater Los Angeles and Las Vegas with any regularity knows this low building wrapped in Greek effigies and a cracking parking lot. The faded blue and white billboards that tease its approach start up about 100 miles away in either direction along the freeway. Extensive signage pulls the eye towards worn photos of gyros or proclamations about “world famous milkshakes”. On any given Sunday afternoon, particularly during the height of Vegas tourism season, cars packed with recovering partiers desperate for any reason to take a break from the traffic find themselves queued up just for a chance to park at The Mad Greek. Inside, the lines grow even longer.
Most customers orders the basics — a gyro with some rice, or a salad that seems surprisingly crisp given the wilting heat outside. Most tables end up with something sweet — either a creamy strawberry shake, some baklava, or both.
Many of the local fast food chains spread across Southern California, from Dino’s to Jim’s, were founded by Greek families. So it probably makes sense that Larry Dabour, son of The Mad Greek’s founder, also comes from a Greek family. In recent decades however, its particular brand of Greek diner fare has largely faded from popularity — outside of, say, the very successful Greek restaurant Papa Cristo’s in LA’s Mid-City neighborhood.
Fans of The Mad Greek aren’t here because the food is trendy or ahead-of-the-curve. For starters, millions of dollars come from itinerant eaters who aren’t looking for avocado toast or kale salads, but there are regulars too. Case in point: A family in one corner of the room, three generations strong, hails from both Las Vegas and Barstow, making The Mad Greek an ideal meeting point. They sit huddled together in a wide corner booth.
Dabour says it was fine fortunes and good timing that led his father to start The Mad Greek as a Southern California diner chain in the 1980s. At its height, outlets spread from the Inland Empire to eight locations across Los Angeles, Orange county, and San Bernardino county.
While luck might have been a factor in the founding of The Mad Greek, spend a few hours with Dabour and it’s clear that keen attention to detail and insistence on consistency and quick service is what keeps this Baker location humming along 28 years later, 24 hours a day.
The wry, smiley Dabour is an affable family man at his core. In conversations with him in the middle of a packed weekend service he can’t keep his eyes off the dining room for long. They tend to wander to the clock, to his servers delivering wide trays filled with fries and burgers and late-morning breakfasts. Pick any Sunday on the calendar and Dabour says he’ll serve an average of 1,600 people. Weekdays the numbers dip, but it’s still around 800 to 1,000 customers a day. Folks want to dine well, but fast. Dabour’s eyes know what that’s worth.
“The biggest issue is space,” says Dabour. “We outgrew our kitchen about eight years ago.” It seems odd to complain about narrow rooms and crowded kitchens in a place where open buy-by-the-acre land stretches in all directions, but Dabour is really talking about the fact that he needs room to stock up: sourcing and maintaining his product is an ongoing battle.
The Mad Greek isn’t allowed to run out of straws or burger patties or fries or anything else, because if it ever did, the places where it can fill up again are — on a good day — over an hour drive away in Las Vegas or Barstow.
There’s no bank in Baker, no grocery store, and ever since the nearby mine and minimum-security prison closed down, there are fewer and fewer locals too. Even gas is more expensive in Baker, to say nothing of the electricity bills that rank among the highest in the state. Maintaining consistency and financial viability under these kinds of conditions takes storage space, and the delicate balance of timing that keeps the menu in stock and customers happy.
Most days of the week, Dabour and his wife work the floor at the Baker location. There’s another Mad Greek in Primm, Nevada, that he also runs with his two adult children. The family has a house in town — and are just about the only business owners in Baker to do so. They spend most of their non-working hours in the outskirts of Las Vegas, an hour away but with more opportunities for their twelve-year-old son. The routine is a reflection of the business ethos the senior Dabour left with his son Larry before he passed away last year. “Here the repeat customer might come once every three months, maybe once a year,” says Larry Dabour, “But we have generations of customers, and we make sure to take care of them.”
Despite the challenges of operating in such a stark locale, business is good for The Mad Greek. Dabour says the Baker location clears close to $4 million in gross sales annually, turning a captive audience of summertime tourists and low season truckers into the clientele for a thriving restaurant that ranks among the most profitable in San Bernardino County, the geographically largest county in the nation. Much of that profit stays right in the community, considering 100 percent of the The Mad Greek’s workforce lives in town. Dabour even pays well above the current state-mandated minimum wage, an issue as practical as it is kind-hearted. Employee retention isn’t great in the middle of the desert, and a higher wage certainly helps.
After a few more minutes spent posing for photos and answering questions, Dabour is up and running. He and his wife return to the fray, conferring with employees and keeping customers smiling as they wait in line to order. There are gyro breakfast burritos, in-season strawberry milkshakes to spin, and just about anything else a person could want spread across a menu that reads dozens of items long. There was a time when The Mad Greek even used to serve late night steaks and cups of coffee for weary truckers. In recent years there has been an expansion of the Mexican side of the menu, due to popular demand. Times change, Dabour knows, even if the desert has a way of making it all seem to be standing still.
The Mad Greek. 72112 Baker Blvd. Baker, CA.
[Note: Dabour declined to share the names of his wife, father, and children for the story so they’ve been left out]
“The Mad Greek Makes Millions Serving Gyros in the Desert.” Eater LA – All. https://la.eater.com/2018/5/18/17344986/the-mad-greek-baker-california-las-vegas-photos.