SOLANA BEACH — There have been many changes at California Pizza Kitchen since it opened in 1992.
Menu items come and go, sometimes with the seasons. The interior was remodeled, and decorated pizza boxes that once hung on the walls have been replaced with images of local scenery.
But the Solana Beach restaurant is not without its mainstays, including some original pizza and pasta dishes, the barbecued chicken chopped salad and Roberto Franco, who on Aug. 23 will celebrate 25 years of clearing and setting tables, tending to customers’ needs and spreading his infectious cheer.
“He’s a superstar,” General Manager Dave Lista said. “He creates such good will. He’s sung ‘Happy Birthday’ to kids who are adults now.”
The 62-year-old Oceanside resident said he was a night maintenance worker for another company when he caught the eye of a CPK manager.
“I clean the carpet, the floor, sweep, mop, everything, the windows, inside, outside,” Franco said. “Somebody look at me and say, ‘Robert, you are a hard worker. You work at CPK. I need you at CPK.”
The plan was to start as a dishwasher and work his way up, but Franco is happy in the position he’s held for two-and-a-half decades.
“The people so very, very nice to me here, especially the kids,” he said. “Some of the little kids are working here now.”
Former customers who have moved out of the area visit him at the restaurant when they are in San Diego. When Franco learns a patron is in the hospital he tries to stop by.
“The people are very, very important to me here,” he said. “This is my second family and this is my second home.”
In recognition of his hard work and loyalty, Franco was honored as CPK’s statewide Employee of the Year about two years ago.
“Roberto has the most positive attitude of anyone I’ve ever met,” Lista said. “He’s the ideal person you don’t come across very often. He’s three times older than most other employees here and he works three times as hard.
“He works without griping and does it without a bump in his step,” he added.
While Lista was talking figuratively, some customers may have noticed Franco does walk with a bit of a limp, the result of a close encounter with a moving train that cost him part of a foot.
“It was 1979, ’80,” he said. “Thank you to God it was just a little piece.”
Back then, Lista said, Franco jumped freight trains to get back and forth to work.
“I think he lost all of his toes,” he said. “But it hasn’t hampered him at all.”
After 25 years, Franco said he has so many fond memories and special moments that it would be impossible to narrow them to a few favorites.
But when it comes to the menu, he has no problem listing his recommendations — the chicken tequila fettuccine, jambalaya linguine fini, Sicilian pizza and key lime pie.
Franco, who has “a beautiful wife, Maria” and five daughters, said he hopes to work at least until he is 65.
“I want to always see my friends here, especially the kids, because they are so very, very nice to me,” he said.
“He’s just great with the kids,” Encinitas resident Chelsea Ford said while dining at California Pizza Kitchen with her family recently. “Super friendly. They love him.”