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BATTISTONE RETURNS TO HIS - AND JAZZ’S - ROOTS

SHARE BATTISTONE RETURNS TO HIS - AND JAZZ’S - ROOTS

The restaurant sits where it always has, across from the beach and down from the wharf. On the awning out front is the original name - "Sambo's," the name that Samuel Battistone and Newell F. Bohnett came up with when they put their names and their resources together and opened the doors on June 17, 1957.

Little could they suspect what they were about to unleash:- The rise and fall of one of America's biggest-ever restaurant chains.

- And the birth of the Utah Jazz.

If you want to pay a pilgrimage to the real roots of the Jazz, come here, to 216 Cabrillo Boulevard in Santa Barbara. And order the pancakes.

Pancakes is what Battistone had in mind when he approached Bohnett, a restaurant equipment salesman, about going in on a place on the beach in the 1950s. Battistone wasn't far removed from his native Italy. He'd first emigrated with his parents to Pennsylvania and then, at the height of the Depression, hopped a freight train and wound up out of money and out of track in Glendale, California, where he got his start in the restaurant business - as a salad boy.

He married the best-looking waitress at the restaurant, Ione, and together they had three children, Sam Jr., Donna and Roger. When Sam Jr. was in the first grade the family moved up the coast to Santa Barbara. When Sam Jr. graduated from Santa Barbara High he and his father were the cooks at Sambo's grand opening, and Ione was the waitress.

Sam had a hunch that pancakes were going to be the nation's next food sensation, and 1,200 Sambo's Family Restaurants in the next 15 years said he was right. There for a while they were putting up a new Sambo's every other week. The Battistones couldn't have made any more money if they'd printed it. You had to take a number to get in line for the line to sign up for a franchise.

When he was asked in 1974 if he'd like to join a group of nine businessmen who wanted to buy an expansion franchise in the National Basketball Association for $6.15 million, Sam Jr. whipped out his checkbook.

They located the team in New Orleans, named it the Jazz, wrote out another check to sign Pete Maravich, and became the NBA's 18th franchise when the 1974-75 season began. Within three seasons Sam Jr. had bought out his partners. Within six seasons he'd moved the franchise to Salt Lake City, a place that appealed to him because he was a recent convert to the Mormon Church, and because it was a lot closer to Sambo's on the beach.

That would have been that if things always stayed the same. But things don't always stay the same, especially not in the restaurant business or the basketball business. Sambo's Family Restaurants had their problems in the late '70s, problems that ranged from racial protests (arising over an innocent use of Little Black Sambos caricatures) to a changing national health-consciousness that frowned on sugar, cholesterol and calories - i.e. pancakes.

In 1979, the Sambo's chain was sold to City Investing and then later to the Vicor Corporation. Sam Sr. passed away, Ione retired, and Sam Jr., in the face of spiraling costs to run an NBA franchise, sold the Utah Jazz to Larry H. Miller for about $20 million over the course of a year from 1985 to 1986.

Anyone who knew Sam Jr. knew he sold a part of himself when he sold the Jazz. It was a business decision that had to be made - that's what it amounted to - but if he had to part with one thing close to his heart, he could at least use it to get back something else that was close to his heart.

After he sold the Jazz he called Vicor and said he wanted to buy Sambo's back. Not all of them. Just the one at 216 Cabrillo Boulevard - the only one that had never changed its name.

At first Vicor said no, but Sam persisted and after six months a deal was struck. The restaurant that was Sam Sr.'s dream was again owned by his family. His youngest son, Roger, took over the day-to-day operation of the restaurant.

Sambo's still sells pancakes - although not at their 45-cent 1957 price; they're now $2.95 for a large stack - and at 6 a.m. it still opens its doors for coffee, serving some of the same regulars who have been showing up now for nearly 40 years.

"It's nice to have it back in the family," Sam Jr. said this week from Palm Springs, where he now makes his home. "That's why I wanted it back. It feels right."

Just this month, the restaurant underwent a "seismic" remodeling to come in line with California's earthquake code. Sambo's doesn't plan on going anywhere, and neither does it plan to expand. It did that once, but now it's back to where it started, with only a plaque and a large black-and-white picture of Sam and Sam Jr. flipping pancakes as reminders of the past.

Well that, and the NBA team that still plays in Utah.