Long before all-you-can-eat national chains like HomeTown Buffet and Golden Corral established a local presence, there was Hodel's Country Dining -- a trailblazer in cafeteria-style restaurant dining here in the southern San Joaquin Valley, and the first of its kind in Bakersfield established more than 40 years ago.
And Hodel's has taken a circuitous route from its origins as a burger joint on Stockdale Highway to its current home on Knudsen Drive.
Bob Donnie Hodel, for whom the locally-owned restaurant is named, was born in Beverly Hills in 1936. His mother was a cook and nanny, and his father was a chauffer for the wealthy Gettle family, who had made its fortune in oil and JCPenny stock. Five years after Bob was born, the Hodels moved back to Bakersfield and its drier climate after Bob's sister became ill. His mother worked as a cook in the Greeley School cafeteria.
Bob attended Bakersfield High School. He loved sports but joined the Driller Band instead because bus service wasn't available to and from his home. As last chair trombone, he played under beloved band director Wes "The Colonel" Moore.
He served two years in the U.S. Army and returned home to attend Bakersfield College where he played football for the Renegades. He transferred to UC Davis, and in 1960, while still a student, he married his wife Muriel. They have two children.
Bob Hodel graduated with a degree in plant agronomy from Davis and moved back to Bakersfield. He worked for the farm bureau but was intent on being his own boss. In 1965, he purchased the Foster's Freeze on Stockdale Highway.
"But I got bored real fast," Hodel recalls with a laugh. "I had this idea for a buffet, so I gathered some partners."
He opened Hodel's at the south side of the Valley Plaza in 1967.
The following year, developer Dean Gay asked if Bob was interested in occupying The Cookery Coffee Shop on Olive Drive.
"I said, 'Yes,' if you will build me a banquet room," Bob Hodel said.
That was more than 40 years, and nine banquet rooms ago. In the 1970s, the "market" room was created for additional dining and later came a plant and gift shop. The rustic cedar western look lasted well into the 1990s before the popular dining spot received a charming country makeover.
After 46 years of serving breakfasts, lunches and dinners, Hodel's remains a family-run business that has outlasted many dining upstarts. Bob's son Don oversees the kitchen and the catering arm of the business, and his son-in-law manages the office and maintenance. Their most popular menu item is still the fried chicken.
This summer, Hodel's will embark on its eighth remodel. Like the seven before, Bob Hodel says they will keep their doors open during the refurbishing.
-- Lisa Kimble