Little has changed at the beloved family-run diner since it opened in 1959. Its customers and owners wouldn’t have it any other way.

Millbrae Pancake House co-owner Erin Burke (center) with her niece Lily Maguire (left) and daughter Gracie Burke. (Photo by Devin Roberts)

Songs from The Shangri-Las and Brenda Lee rotate through Millbrae Pancake House’s playlist. The upbeat ‘60s-era music greets you soon after you step out of your car and pulls you inside, where you imagine people conversing with words like “jalopy” and “groovy.” Yes, the popular all-day breakfast spot is dated, but places like this offer a respite from a world that can feel like it’s spinning out of control.

The interior’s wood-paneled walls have no doubt seen a lot. It’s a retro-lover’s dream with laminate wood tables and matching chairs, vinyl upholstered booths and brass chandeliers. At some point in time over the last 64 years, they updated the wallpaper.

The Mulcrevy girls, as they’re still called, currently run the business that originally was Uncle John’s Pancake House. Their father, Robert Mulcrevy, along with his sisters Marie, Frances (Frankie) and Anne (plus her husband Jack Holder) bought the franchise in 1959. In 1962, the first-generation siblings changed the name to Millbrae Pancake House. Sisters Erin, Jane, Laura and Maureen (second-generation siblings) took control of the restaurant in 2009 when their aunt Marie, being the last of the Mulcrevy siblings involved, decided to step away. Erin Burke and her brother-in-law, Thomas Maguire, sat down to talk about how this fourth-generation San Francisco family keeps the legacy of the Millbrae Pancake House alive after two generations of ownership.

The interior of Millbrae Pancake House has changed little over its 64-year history. (Photo by Devin Roberts)

Maguire credits the restaurant’s longevity to its core business philosophy: treating employees like family and serving delicious food with great service at a great value. Burke agrees, stressing that “we represent family and tradition.” Many of the restaurant’s dishes are priced under $15, and the menu includes a wide range of pancakes and waffles, omelets and other diner staples like biscuits and gravy for breakfast, plus salads, burgers and sandwiches for lunch. There’s even a “doggie menu” with well-done scrambled eggs and the Doggie Burger (a plain beef patty without seasoning).

With the average staffer sticking around for 20 years and a 64-year-old pancake recipe, it’s easy to see why the restaurant is a sort of time capsule. Other than minor updates, like a website and the use of third-party apps that were introduced during the pandemic, little has changed since Burke and her sisters left their respective careers to manage the business.

“Even after my sisters and I took over, my aunt still came every day and ran the place from a booth. She’d wag her finger if she saw something wrong,” Burke says. “She told us, ‘Don’t change anything,’ and her advice continues to guide us. People come here expecting things to stay the same.”

The term “family” extends to staff. Burke is proud that positions have always been filled by referrals. “We have people that are cooking that have cousins that are bussing. We have servers whose parents worked here,” she says.

Memo Gavidia, the kitchen manager, is only the second person to hold that position, the first being his father. “Memo’s been here almost 30 years, and his father, 30 years before that,” she says.

Gavidia reiterates the family vibe. “This place is like family,” he says. “My father started working here in 1968, and I came to work here in 1987. We’re all here going through the ups and downs together.”

Pancakes are a staple menu item at Millbrae Pancake House, which still uses its original pancake recipe. (Photo by Devin Roberts)

Maguire retells Aunt Marie’s advice: “Never ask an employee to do something that you’re not willing to do yourself.” She was so protective of the staff that she warned the second generation not to implement too much change because the staff wouldn’t like it. That message became prophetic when COVID hit.

The pandemic did force some of the waitresses into retirement, and Maguire acknowledges that going paperless and implementing a POS system was a factor. “Contactless ordering, due to COVID-19, forced us to make the switch, and we knew we had several longtime waitresses who wouldn’t go for it. As a result, many did retire,” he says.

One such waitress was Mary Meade, who worked at the restaurant for 38 years. Her death in 2021, a week after she announced her retirement, was a huge blow to the family. “Mary lived across the street from the restaurant and during the shutdown, we would see her sitting on her balcony waving back at us,” Burke says. “Over a decade, I worked side by side with her and ate lunch with her every day when I was waitressing.”

Coffee was and still is the restaurant’s top seller. The menu has only changed a couple of times, Burke recalls. “I remember when we finally removed the cold sandwiches. We figured if someone still wanted one, we’d make it for them.” Maguire reminds her of the last time they updated the menu with a fried chicken and waffles plate, saying, “I think about 12 years ago, we realized we had both items on the menu, and we knew it was trending so we put them together. It’s been one of our top sellers ever since.”

The sisters talk every day about the business and each contributes in different ways. Between the four of them, there are 10 grandkids, and they all participate in the restaurant, whether it’s stocking the shelves with plush toys at the front or bussing tables.

Consistency and remaining true to the business’s core values have kept the restaurant afloat, even when each decade presented unique challenges.

Burke remembers Aunt Frankie telling her how, during the early years, she used to hide in the office when the egg man would come collecting payment. Maguire retells one of his favorite stories about Aunt Marie and her fear of change: “When 280 was built in 1972, she thought it would be the end of the business and assumed that everyone would bypass El Camino Real.” Little did she know that the freeway would increase business tenfold. When the city demolished Millbrae Bowl in the ‘90s, Marie and Frankie thought it would negatively affect the business. Contrary to their logic, the large apartment complex that replaced it has been great for business. But Maguire recalls one particular complaint soon after the complex was completed regarding the smell of bacon. “He knew he was moving in next to a breakfast spot. What did he expect? And who doesn’t like the smell of bacon?” he jokes.

“Our perspective has changed,” Erin Burke says about the pandemic. “We saw what life would be like without this place.” (Photo by Devin Roberts)

Fast forward to March 2020, Burke and her sisters faced decisions like their aunt Frankie, wondering how they were going to pay the bills. “Not every industry felt the impact of the shutdown, but every restaurant felt it immediately. How COVID-19 impacted us resonated with so many people because we had never closed other than Christmas Day for the last 64 years. It was so uncertain whether we were going to make it,” Maguire says. Burke agrees, feeling thankful for coming out on the other side. “Our perspective has changed,” she says. “We saw what life would be like without this place.”

She admits that technology can hinder their ability to connect with a new generation of customers, with QR codes and online ordering keeping new and returning customers at a distance. But she and her sisters are determined to find new ways to connect as they say goodbye to the older generation and welcome a new one with the same familiar food and atmosphere.

These legacy restaurants don’t have to change their tune every time a new food fad surfaces — the music they play and the food they serve keep us tethered to a simpler time when coffee was a penny and breakfast was celebrated and shared with family and friends all day.

Millbrae Pancake House, 1301 El Camino Real, Millbrae. 650-589-2080. Instagram: @millbrae_pancake_house.

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