Kaitlyn Rose Pilsbury, the “Rosie” of Rosie’s Café is an inspirational figure, an example of the American entrepreneurial spirit. A woman who literally climbed into a car in New Jersey four years ago and drove across the U.S.A. looking for a business she could call her own.
Some might say she was looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. In the end, she ended up going for the gold instead. She wasn’t looking for anything free, but an opportunity. A place where she could work her heart out every day—and wouldn’t begrudge a moment of that time because it was her dream.
She drove across the continent with her cousin Erin—twice. Erin helps her several mornings a week. “She is my sanity in all the chaos. And she works very hard.” They sometimes stand out on the sidewalk, “like a bunch of nuts, reeling people in.”
The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, or the gold ring, therefore, is Rosie’s Café, which many people in Escondido will fondly recall was Champion’s café for many decades, and which still has that name on the side because Pilsbury loves the history of the place.
The story begins four years ago when Pilsbury got into a car with her cousin and friends and began camping across the country. “And lo and behold Southern California came up, where there’s no snow.” And that’s a good thing from the perspective of a Jersey girl.
Although she was only 26 at the time, she had spent much of her young life in the food business. She was 14 when she began helping out a local bagel shop. In the interim she did everything from busing tables to dish washing, serving tables, cooking and even some baking. “I was not a baker by any means, but I helped out,” she recalls.
Upon arriving in Southern California, she camped out for a while, sizing up opportunities. “Then a friend introduced me to a lovely lady named Adi, who was married to Eric. They found potential in me.” They gave her work cleaning and babysitting and eventually in their café, the Vista French Bakery Café, where she would eventually become the manager—a job she held for three years.
During that time, her employers helped her to understand that she was a woman who ultimately wouldn’t be happy unless she had her own place. “My time with them led me to realize I wanted to go for the gold and take the leap,” she said. “I learned a lot about myself and I was at the point where I was torn what to do, whether to travel the world or settle down. Do I work for the man or for myself? Someone told me that if you are going to work for seven days a week as hard as you do—you should own it!”
Eric mentored her and told her, “Go looking and find out where you belong.” She searched for a long time, without finding anything that fit. Then one of her regular customers came into the restaurant with a newspaper article about the closing of Champions in January 2016 in Escondido, a city she hadn’t visited yet.
“When I got here it was perfect!” she recalls. “I stood on Grand Avenue. That reminded me of home, Parsippany and Montpelier, where I grew up.” That was near the ice cream parlor, Holsten’s Brookdale Confectionary where The Sopranos was often filmed.
“I really wasn’t familiar with Champions,” recalls Pilsbury, but she resolved to learn about its history, and perhaps even more important, the neighborhood where it had flourished. She began getting to know neighboring merchants such as the owners of Andy’s Barber Shop, Andy and Charmaine, who gave her good advice.
“They told me, ‘Do your homework. Learn about Champions. Check it out.’ So, I read up on Annette Champion,” the woman who owned the successful café for decades, and who still owns the building and property. “I admired her and her hard work.” She did her homework, learning as much as she could. She attended Cruisin’ Grand—and loved it. “I just knew I wanted to be here,” she recalls.
Up until this point she hadn’t actually met Annette Champion. Eventually she did, and it turned out to be a fortunate meeting. “She’s a great mentor and a great landlord,” she says.
Pilsbury feels honored Mrs. Champion helped her bring back some of the favorite menu items—although Rosie’s Café also has many of its own creations—including the famous Champions cinnamon roll. A roll that on Cruisin’ Grand nights is sold with a dollop of ice cream on top. Also, the celebrated corned beef breakfast, called the “Eat Like a Champion” breakfast.
Pilsbury introduced the new item: “The Cubano,” which has a deep-fried pickle on top. Then there’s the “Jay Smash,” which has cheese, aioli sauce, hash browns and sautéed mushrooms. Rosie’s Benedict has two poached eggs over tomatoes, sautéed mushrooms and onions on a bed of hash browns and topped with tomatillo aioli. And they just introduced Biscuits and Gravy, made with sausage gravy.
Mrs. Champion also put Pilsbury in touch with some of the old staff, such as Sandy, who worked at the restaurant for 30 years before it closed. Sandy has helped with organizing the café and the functioning of the front end.
There are also new staffers, such as Pilsbury’s partner Jason Nowinsky. “This place wouldn’t be a successful place if he wasn’t here,” she says.
She loves that some sort of café, whether Champions, or before that Chat ‘n Chow and McCains, has been at that location for 97 years. She loves nostalgia, and has filled the café with memorabilia, including a poster tribute to “Rosie the Riveter,” who for obvious reasons, she kind of identifies with, and who, when she wears her hair in braids, she kind of resembles.
She also loves it that many of her regulars from the Vista Bakery Café come to visit. “Words don’t describe how lovely you feel for people to drive out of a town they seldom leave just to come here and say, ‘Hi!’ ”
As befits a restaurant owned by a woman who works seven days a week, Rosie’s is open for breakfast and lunch seven days, from 6 a.m.–2 p.m. It is also open for during on Fridays during Cruisin’ Grand, from 4-8:30 p.m., when they bring out “the pit stop” serve hots dogs, burgers and ice cream sundaes on a hot cinnamon bun. It was cousin Erin—who crossed the continent with her two times—who came up with that idea.
“I love people. Nothing is better than being home away from home. I love the atmosphere. Nothing makes me happier than hanging out,” says the owner, whose goal, “Is for customers to feel like they are eating at home when they eat at Rosie’s.”
She looks around at her domain and smiles. “It’s all worked out as it was meant to,” says Pilsbury. “I fully believe I belong here. My whole heart is in it.”
Rosie’s Café is located at 117 W Grand Ave. Escondido. Call 442-248-8663.