INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — An egg cracks and hisses on a frying pan in the kitchen; coffee brews in the server station in the corner; the bell jingles on the door as customers swivel in their barstools and chairs to greet the incoming patrons.
Everyone knows each other at the Wildflower Cafe in Incline Village and owner Ellen Toto is no exception.
“There are some people that have been customers of mine since 1976, and I consider them very close friends,” Toto said. “I've seen them get married and I've watched their kids grow up. It's an honor to still be a part of their lives.”
When Toto moved to Incline Village in '76, she opened and operated a successful pizza parlor for several years before biting into the breakfast industry in Dec. 1984.
“We sold the pizza place and said we were never getting into the restaurant business again, but we quickly realized this town needed a breakfast place,” said Toto, a positive-natured woman with a kindred spirit. “We tried to think of other retail, but we saw a need in this community and restaurants were what we knew, so we felt like that was the way to go.”
With a following from the previous pizza venture, it was no surprise customers supported Toto in her new undertaking. Since day one, the restaurant has been teeming with longtime locals and newcomers to the area.
Toto envisioned a classic-style breakfast and lunch menu, in which items were interchangeable and ingredients weren't overcomplicated. As a Buffalo, N.Y., native, meat and potatoes were a staple of Toto's childhood diet, and she wanted the menu to reflect her personal taste, she said.
“I created the menu from scratch and it really hasn't changed much over the years,” Toto said. “I think people appreciate that because it's a reflection of me.”
The only alterations she's made over the past 27 years have been adding gluten-free items to accommodate the growing number of patrons with allergy issues, adding vegan and vegetarian options, and making the popular breakfast burrito into a staple item.
“We won't get into diet fads, but I'll try new things with specials, and if it becomes really popular, I'll add it to the menu,” Toto said.
Toto co-owns the establishment with her husband, George, who once-upon-a-time owned a cinnamon roll bakery in Colorado. His famous baked goods are always available, and he adds a level of expertise that compliments Toto's laid-back style.
One important element of business the husband and wife duo share is maintaining year-round, reliable employees. Owning a small business in Tahoe doesn't always allow for long vacation periods, but the Totos are able to take short-distance getaways by entrusting Wildflower in the hands of their employees.
“We have a real good core of employees that stay with us,” Ellen said. “They're family to us, not just employees, so we try to do whatever we can to help them out, and they are there for us when we need them.”
Both the Totos are retired military personnel, and giving back to fellow veterans is definitely important, among other nonprofits in the community.
“I really enjoyed doing military medicine … but you can't look back, and I have the business, which I wouldn't trade for anything,” Ellen said. “It will always be a part of who I am though, and my husband and I help wherever we can when it comes to our veterans.”
George and Ellen both live in Reno now, which helps with buying supplies, but isn't always the easiest commute in the winter. However, some of their longtime friends have moved down the hill as well, and the Totos take turns driving over Mount Rose to ease the burden.
As for the future of Wildflower, the Totos have had to tighten their belts in recent years to adapt to the current economic environment, but portion sizes are the same, service is always friendly and the prices haven't gone up in years.
“I feel a great pride of ownership, and I'm proud that I know all these people and can be a part of their lives and they can be a part of my life,” Ellen said. “I can't believe I've made it this long in this business.”