Janis Hood is wearing a bit more makeup than she usually does when working the grill more than 12 hours a day, six days a week. TV cameras are coming to her taco stand in Studio City, along with a lot more visitors, and a lot more picture takers—more than ever before in Henry’s Tacos' 51 years.
“What can I do, who can I call?” customers shout to her through the screen under the stand's wooden menu. "What can we do to save Henry's?"
They recognize Hood from the flood of media reports over the past 24 hours that have chronicled her announcement that she plans to close the iconic restaurant at the end of the year.
“I’m mad, I’m just mad that it’s ending this way,” Hood says. “I don’t know what to tell people.”
But, in a quieter moment—if you can get that with Hood these days—she will tell you that there’s really not much that can be done. There’s really not much that any rally of petition-signing or flurry of phone calls can do to keep Henry’s Tacos going.
And, even if it does keep going, it most likely won’t include Janis Hood, or any part of the family that started the business more than half a century ago.
“I’m tired, I’m alone,” she sighs. “I’m nearing 60,” (she’s 57). “I don’t have a husband. I don’t have children. I have nieces back in Arkansas that are 3 and 4 years old, and I’ve never seen them. I’m ready to let it all go.”
So yes, publicly she is mad at the landlord who owns the property who wouldn’t let her sell the business over the past year to three prospective buyers who wanted to keep Henry’s Tacos going as is.
And yes, she’s mad at Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Krekorian because she said he did not push her vintage sign and tiny restaurant to the full Council for a vote that would declare the space a Cultural Historic Landmark. The councilman (see his letter in PDF form in the photo gallery) said he wanted to stay out of the landlord-tenant dispute and would have pushed for the vote if things were settled, but it wasn’t clear why his actions depended on the lease negotiations.
Yes, she’s mad, but personally, Hood is ready to move on.
She appreciates the renewed interest in Henry’s Tacos. She loves the fact that all the commemorative T-shirts are sold out (she’s rummaging around for more). She loves the Hollywood stars who have shown support—Chris Pine coming over with friends, Elijah Wood tweeting, and Breaking Bad star Aaron Paul planning an eat-in for Sunday afternoon.
But on Tuesday afternoon, the attorney for the landowner is inspecting the property and acknowledging that she won’t extend the lease next year. She decided on Tuesday to extend Saturday hours to 9 p.m. and will be opened on Sundays noon to 5 p.m. through the rest of the month.
“It’s more work for me, of course, but we’ll do it as our way of saying good-bye,” Hood says.
IN THE BEGINNING . . .
Janis Hood’s grandfather, Henry Comstock, was an Assembly of God minister who followed his two adult sons West from Nebraska. One of his sons, James, was a location scout of sorts for a new company called Taco Bell.
Comstock thought it sounded like a good idea, and he beat them to the punch, opening Henry’s Taco's on Dec. 13, 1961 many months before the first Taco Bell opened.
The location was perfect in the 280-square-foot stand. There was a Shell Station across the street (where the mini mall is now), and there was a Dairy Queen near where the 7-Eleven is now. The building was once a flower shop and then the Hollywoodvale Realty office. They put up a yellow, green and red canopy and the Googie-style TACO sign, and of course, named it after himself. He created his secret hot red taco sauce and made sure the ground meat, shredded iceberg lettuce and yellow cheese were always cut fresh each day.
Hood grew up a few blocks away in Studio City on Kraft Avenue. She went to Rio Vista Elementary School, then Walter Reed Middle School and North Hollywood High School. She worked at Henry’s Tacos until she went to college for a teaching degree.
But she could never get away from the family business. Her mother, Levonne Eloff, took over the business and was married for 37 years. Hood described her mother as a “little Southern Belle,” who worked tirelessly at Henry’s for 47 years before passing away in 2009.
In the back of the tiny stand, Hood has a collage of photos of her family, with Grandpa Henry in the middle. She gets nostalgic when talking about them. Her family now are the customers and the staff she has known for so long.
“Here are some sunglasses for you, you just had cataract surgery, you should stay out of the sun,” said a protective friend, Bev Henderson, 63, who first worked at Henry’s in 1967.
“The employees, they look out for me,” Hood smiled.
Actor Richard Roundtree (Shaft) lived in the area, and one of his daughters, Kelly, worked at Henry’s Tacos. Also, one of the girls working at the stand is now Rev. Louise Sloan Goben, the associate pastor of the First Christian Church of North Hollywood just down the block on Moorpark Street.
Her longest-running employee today is Omar Vega, who worked at Henry’s for 21 years. She said he would stay on, as well as the others who have been there six and three years.
“This is my life here, this is local history,” Hood says.
WHEN TROUBLES BEGAN . . .
When her mother died, Hood renegotiated a lease with Mehran Ebrahimpour, of Beverly Hills, who also owns the property next door of the Starlite Room, another Studio City legendary hangout.
“I never had much contact with him, but I don’t think he ever liked me,” Hood said.
In the 51 years, her family never had a longterm lease for Henry’s Tacos. Then, the rent went up from $3,759 a month to $5,620 in 2011.
“I began to worry that they wanted us out and then were going to tear down Henry’s and put up who-knows-what,” she said.
There was a car that crashed into the side of the stand, and a camera caught the action, and eventually the culprit (see the video here.) A lot of expensive equipment inside was destroyed.
When Hood decided to apply for the Cultural Landmark status last year, it was because the business had reached half a century old, but also because it could protect the property somewhat.
Were it to be declared one of 1,000 of Los Angeles’s landmarks, it would join only one other food-related place—along with The Munch Box in Chatsworth. The designation passed through a committee and needed to go to the full council for a vote.
Around the same time, she lost her house and nearly everything she owned to one of those brush fires in Sylmar. She hoped to sell the business to someone who knew the food industry and wanted to keep Henry’s legacy. Three potential buyers met with the landowner, and all three were rejected. One of them is a well-known prominent businessman in Studio City, who was turned down without explanation.
Studio City Patch continues to try to reach Ebrahimpour, and one of the potential buyers of Henry’s for comment. Ebrahimpour’s attorney Arash Naghdi also has not returned calls, but said in a letter he would be inspecting the Henry’s Taco site to see what will be done after the first of the new year.
“I don’t know what will happen to the place, I don’t know if they will knock it all down and build a Starbucks,” Hood smirked.
Jeremy Oberstein, of Paul Krekorian’s office, said the councilman’s team asked both parties to negotiate their lease and the councilman said in a two-page letter: "If the choice were up to me, my choice would be to keep a vibrant and successful Henry's in operation.”
“I don’t feel like the councilman or his staff were very helpful at all, they never returned my repeated phone calls, and I feel like they dropped the ball,” Hood said.
Oberstein said the office has had no contact with Hood since last February. They were waiting for word of a deal in order to continue the path toward cultural historical status.
CULTURAL ICON AND THE FUTURE . . .
Meanwhile, Henry’s Tacos has become a cultural icon and part of Studio City’s history.
Click here for some of the movies and TV shows and stars that filmed at Henry’s. A short movie (see the gallery above) was filmed there, and the place is mentioned in many books and novels (including a Michael Connelly story).
If the restaurant is torn down, Hood says she found a historic organization that will preserve the sign. There are no plans whatsoever at this point for anything new or different on the site, nor any permits pulled for the lot, city officials say.
“This is part of my grandfather’s legacy, it’s part of my legacy,” Hood says. “I want it to go on.”
For Hood, it is a time to think of herself. She’s never had the chance to take a trip to see her family. She wants to go back to graduate school and get a Master’s degree in psychology.
Hood’s quiet moments don’t last long these days.
“I’ve been coming here since 1993, I love it, what can I do?” says Norma-Jean Jonz, a real estate agent and fan of Patch, too.
“I really don’t know anymore,” Hood says, a bit more resigned than usual.
“We could rally, make phone calls, whatever you need,” Jonz offers.
“I’ve been a one-woman show all this time,” Hood says. “I don’t know what to do with all this energy.”
What can people do? How can fans help?
Hood is hoping that the landowner will accept a bid on the property, and allow her to sell the business. She is hoping that her employees will still continue her family standards, and her grandfather’s name.
There’s a rally planned for Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m. with actor Aaron Paul, and probably other famous faces.
“Just come down and have a taco, say hello,” says Hood with a weak smile. “Take advantage of the new, longer hours—at least while you can.”
If you have a favorite photo of Henry's Tacos, post it here.
If you have a favorite memory, post it here.