Breakfast in Their Genes

For the Bartkes, cinnamon rolls and friendly service are serious business

The aroma of freshly baked bread lingers in the kitchen of Robert's Restaurant, where owner E. Boyd Bartke is busy rolling homemade dough for his family's famous cinnamon rolls. He does this multiple times a day, as the cinnamon rolls are a hot commodity. The recipe has been in his family for more than 40 years.

At Robert's, each and every staff person says hello, in a sincere way. In business since 1978, Robert's, at 3301 E. Grant Road, has roots extending well beyond 1978.

Bartke's maternal grandfather, Gus Balon, began in food service by running an old-fashioned soda fountain in Los Alamos, N.M., in the early '60s. Inspired by a military official who showed him the ropes of running a restaurant, Balon opened Catalina Café on the corner of Grant and Country Club roads in 1963.

"I don't know how many years the café was here at Grant and Country Club, but my grandfather changed the name to Gus Balon's and then moved it over to 22nd Street," Bartke said.

Gus Balon's, still located at 6027 E. 22nd St., and still run by Balon's family, has thrived with local Tucsonans, Bartke said. One reason: Balon insisted upon serving fresh, homemade bread, pies and cinnamon rolls--a tradition taken very seriously today at Robert's.

Bartke's mother, Donna, worked at the restaurant. His father, Robert Bartke, a former police officer, would frequent Gus Balon's Restaurant--that's where he met Donna, Boyd Bartke said. When Balon and his wife, Kay, both developed cancer, Bartke's father left the police force and entered the food force. He and his wife operated the restaurant, making sure to preserve the values that had earned Balon faithful customers.

The two spent 11 years at Gus Balon's, when they decided to branch off and create a new restaurant, adhering to the customer service and homemade recipes of Gus Balon's.

"Basically, Robert's stems from my grandfather," Boyd Bartke said.

Robert's Restaurant opened in April 1978, at the northwest corner of Speedway Boulevard and Alvernon Way, when Boyd Bartke was just 5 years old. When Speedway was widened in 1993, the Bartkes moved Robert's to the location where the restaurant remains today. Interestingly enough, Robert's is just a few blocks from where it all began, at the Catalina Café's original location.

"We were kicked back to this neighborhood, which was not planned," Boyd Bartke says of the restaurant's move. The transition was difficult for Robert Bartke, as the original location had a special place in his heart. He liked the atmosphere the older building provided, Boyd Bartke said.

"My dad was really comfortable over at the Speedway location. We kept all our regular customers though, which is kind of a cool thing."

Some of Boyd Bartke's earliest memories include times spent in the kitchen at the old location. Those memories today are even more special: His grandfather, Balon, died in March.

Regular customers at Robert's remain loyal, some stopping by every day for a cinnamon roll. Boyd Bartke thinks people keep coming back because the restaurant serves basic comfort food. The restaurant relies on its regulars, including those who can't stand the taste of packaged bread, Boyd Bartke said.

"We even have older clientele that come in for breakfast and then come back in later for lunch, six days a week," he said. "There is always someone on the counter who sits there everyday."

Manager Carlos Esquer has been at Robert's for seven years. He has left many jobs in the past, but hasn't found a single reason to leave Robert's.

"There is something about this place that keeps me here," Esquer said.

With that, he turns and laughs, possibly remembering those other jobs that couldn't quite meet Robert's standards.

Even the hardest of workers, though, take a vacation: Robert's is closed until Aug. 16. No doubt the restaurant will see an influx of customers that day, when the hungry regulars return to indulge their cinnamon-roll fix.

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