On the Line: Doug Cavanaugh Of Ruby’s Diner

I shook hands with Doug Cavanaugh, founder of Ruby’s Diner, a while back. And while I know the diner empire is named after his mom (and they recently updated their breakfast menu), that was about all I could tell you about Ruby’s. So I was happy to learn about their participation in this year’s Fresh Toast event. I met our photographer and Doug at the recently remodeled Laguna Hills diner to conduct our interview.

You’re making breakfast at home; what are you making?
My family loves eggs Benedict in general. And my daughter loves pancakes.

Tell me one stereotype about the industry, and whether or not it’s true.
I think everybody who feels they can cook feels they should be in the restaurant business. It’s a very different skill set. So many people who get into the business shouldn’t. With the advent of the food truck, it’s allowed a lot of people to get into the business, which I think is very good. I gotta tell you, some of these guys are knocking out some amazing cuisine; they really are.

What are your best-sellers at breakfast and lunch?
If you want the straight sales numbers, it’s two eggs. That’s what everyone orders at breakfast. And the number one best-seller at lunch is the Rubyburger. The other huge sellers are milkshakes.

What’s the best advice you could give a home cook?
I used to have a sea of cookbooks. Now I don’t use them anymore. Everything I get is online. Ina Garten’s recipes are by far tried and true. The only thing you have to do is back the salt by about half.

What was the last thing you researched online?
The last thing I looked up was background on Ray Kroc. I just wanted to learn more about him [Editor’s Note: We got into a long discussion about The Founder movie, and how it didn’t fully depict the fact that Kroc was actually married thrice.].

One food you can’t live without?
Sushi. Sashimi— no rice. I crave it unlike anything else. I must have it. I feel good after I eat it. If I want to spend a lot of money, I go to Bluefin.

Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best:
The food has elevated to a wonderful new level compared to what it was 10 years ago. In general, we’re blessed with a lot of offerings and improved quality.

What’s the strangest request you’ve received?
There’s a lady who eats at South Coast Plaza every morning. Loyal customer, been there probably 20 years. She asked that we turn the music off while she’s there. She hates swing music. She loves everything elese. We turn it way down for her. When she leaves, we turn it back up.

What is your beverage of choice?
Red wine. I love California Cabs.

What do you like to do in your free time?
I’m always working on other projects. I’m a serial entrepreneur.

What was your most recent meal?
I made chicken last night. I have rediscovered the pressure cooker. And so I did a whole chicken in vinegar, with mushrooms and vegetables. It makes an amazing sauce, cooks in 25 minutes and is fabulous. The best one to get is a Cuisinart. It also does artichokes well.

Do you have a favorite childhood memory.
One is cooking with my grandmother. She is where I got my interest in the culinary world. She was an amazing cook. She was a Missouri farm girl, and so she baked her own bread. She’d send me fried chicken dinners.

The other is my parents playing pinochle. On Sunday afternoons, after the big chicken dinner, I would sit under the table. One year, my uncle gave us all miniature tape recorders. And I recorded the conversation, and I have it to this day. It is such a treasure. It is my grandparents, my aunts, my uncles. I would never have that treasure if I hadn’t done it. It was hilarious to hear the banter back and forth.

Favorite meal growing up:
Egg sandwich with mayonnaise. I had a great aunt who took care of me when my mom went to work and I wasn’t at school. And she had this cast iron skillet that she never cleaned. It was always seasoned, and she would make the most amazing scrambled eggs in this sandwich. It’s a comfort food to this day. And my kids absolutely love it, too. My favorite lunch was a grilled cheese sandwich. She made the world’s greatest— in the same skillet.

Where do you like to go with your family to eat?
We’re more of a hole-in-the-wall restaurant family. There’s a little Italian restaurant across the freeway called Tutto Famiglia. It’s some of the best homestyle Italian food around. And we’ve been going there for years. We’ve gotten to know the family; love the food. I’m thrilled Marche Moderne is moving to Crystal Cove. I will probably be there twice a month. I just love their food. I love Park Avenue in Stanton. He’s a good friend of mine.

Hardest lesson you’ve learned:
Always be willing to pay for the best talent. That $10,000 or $20,000 difference in salary is so quickly overcome by progress, and I’ve learned that lesson a couple of times.

If you were not in this business, what other industry would you like to try out?
I was going to be in the movie business. I almost went to the film school at USC. All of a sudden, I got an opportunity to open a restaurant in Nantucket, and made the dash back East.

Any idea what Ruby’s might be serving at Fresh Toast?
I heard we are going to do the cinnamon roll French toast.

Is there anything you’d like readers to know?
We started a foundation called the Ruby Dooby Foundation, in honor of my mom. She passed away in 2015. When she passed away, I got hundreds of letters from people who never met her, but were impacted by her sense of grace. Since she had such love for my kids and other kids, I did this in her honor. I just didn’t want that to get lost. We do fundraisers during the year in the restaurant, like Burger Day. And we’re also doing a big gala this fall.

Check out your local Ruby’s Diner at www.rubysdiner.com. And be sure to visit them at next month’s Fresh Toast!

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