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Enjoy Magazine

Family-Style Comfort Food at Black Bear Diners

12/24/2014 12:29AM ● By Kerri Regan

Hungry Bears

January 2015
By Kerri Regan
Photo by Betsy Erickson

Bruce Dean and Bob Manley want you to make yourselves at home when you come to their place. Pop a couple quarters into the jukebox and spin your favorite oldies. Peruse the vintage newspaper that serves as the menu. Sip your coffee slowly. And the food? It’s like a bear hug for your appetite.

It’s been 20 years since Dean and Manley cobbled together enough money to open the first Black Bear Diner in Mount Shasta. “For the first year, every Monday we took the quarters out of the jukebox and that was our pay,” Dean says. “Bob poured coffee and I cooked. We both lost 40 pounds because we were working so hard we didn’t eat.”

But they hoped they had the recipe for success. Dean had worked in the restaurant industry since he was 15, working at Sambo’s as a cook through graduate school. He knew he wanted to serve family-style comfort food. The only thing he was missing was a catchy idea.

Enter Dean’s longtime friend Manley, who grew up in Mount Shasta and worked as a speech pathologist, teacher and wilderness guide. “I was a restaurant guy and he was a concept guy—a dreamer type guy,” Dean says. “He became enchanted with black bears as a wilderness guide, and he and his wife had owned Black Bear Gallery in Mount Shasta.”

Manley translated that affinity into a restaurant idea, complete with a log cabin look, handcarved wooden bears out front, a hand-painted mural and rib-sticking food that does a pretty convincing job of making you feel like you’re enjoying a meal right out of Grandma’s kitchen. The pair doubled down on their concept when they opened their second restaurant in 1997 —the one in Redding. They took over Harry’s Restaurant, opening as Black Bear Diner the day after Harry’s closed. “We hung up a few pictures, put a few carved bears out there and put our menu in,” Dean says.

Just like in Mount Shasta, customers kept coming, so they dipped their toes in a little deeper. “We went into Gilroy and the response was huge,” Dean says. “It was really busy and people really liked it. Then we went into Napa and Walnut Creek. Now we have a more scientific approach— we look at demographics and traffic studies and things like that. Before, it was just in our stomach: ‘I think we can do good there.’”

Today, Black Bear Diner has 67 restaurants in eight states and employs 22,000 people. They’ve been named one of the top 200 restaurant chains in America, an industry benchmark.

“We’re growing our dream one by one,” says Dean, who also chairs the California Restaurant Association. “When we started, we were happy that anybody wanted us anywhere ... Now we’ve gravitated to larger markets, and we’ll keep growing as long as people want to keep coming. But we’re still the same guys we were when we started.”

As Chief Operating Officer, Dean oversees the business, franchise and menu development. He created many of Black Bear’s recipes, and he’s the guy who insists on “bear-sized” portions of good old-fashioned comfort food. Manley is the Chief Brand Officer who ensures that each Black Bear features the warm, comforting look and feel of the original diner.

But each location has a unique personality, which is first showcased by the huge wooden bear at the entrance. Ray Schulz of Washington has carved more than 200 of these bears with a chainsaw, and each represents something unique about the area. At the Signal Hill restaurant near Long Beach, the bear wears a hard hat to symbolize the city’s history of being dotted with oil derricks. Other bears carry skis or fishing poles. “We’ve really kept him busy,” Dean says.

Each diner is also decorated with a mural that represents the area in some way. The first was painted by Steve and Gary Fitzgerald, and today Colleen Mitchell-Veyna of Visalia is responsible for these personal touches that are designed to make folks feel at home at their business, which is truly a family affair. Dean and his wife, Michelle, have six children, including Joanna, Black Bear’s office and information technology manager. Manley and his wife,
Laurie, have two children, both of whom are involved in the Siskiyou County operations.

“We want to give people good food and a place they can relax their soul a little bit, as my partner says,” Dean says. “It’s an old fashioned place; it’s not trendy. Hopefully people have been coming here for years and years, and will be coming for years and years into the future.”