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Cafe of the sky

JoAnn Kupka has been the woman behind Lodi Airport Cafe for 24 years. Now, after a massive remodel, the family diner has reopened with an aviation theme, larger kitchen and revamped menu

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Posted: Friday, July 20, 2012 7:41 am

JoAnn Kupka stands over a stainless steel sink, scraping leftover country potatoes and crust from toast into the trash before rinsing them and placing them in the industrial dishwasher. Behind her, there is the chatter of weekday morning diners and the soft clink and clank of ceramic coffee cups on light wooden table tops.

It’s opening day at the newly renovated Lodi Airport Cafe on Highway 99.

Kupka isn’t the type of restaurateur who leaves the work to her staff. She is hands-on — a self-proclaimed “floater” who does anything that needs to be done.

“She’s pretty amazing,” said Kupka’s daughter, Jennifer, who has seen her mother’s vision transform the restaurant over the years.

 On opening day, Kupka stays busy, but always calm, whether she’s working that new open kitchen, teaching a younger generation of waitstaff the importance of details or chatting with customers who are excited to have one of their regular eateries back in business.

The Lodi Airport Cafe has become a Lodi-Acampo fixture, offering traditional breakfast and lunches for more than two decades. Kupka opened the restaurant 24 years ago after her husband, Robert Kupka, bought the airport in 1978.

Watching planes and skydivers

It’s known by local families and highway travelers as the diner at Jahant Road, where there is almost always something to see flying through the sky.

“The kids seem to love this place,” Kupka said. “It’s fun to sit here and watch planes and skydivers.”

The restaurant reopened on July 5, after closing Jan. 15 for a massive renovation lead by contractor Dave Duke. It was the third overhaul since Kupka took over the cafe.

It has an open, airy feel and a modern, slightly-industrial, aviation theme. There is a huge airplane prop at the restaurant’s entry way and the cashier’s table is made to look like a freight container with light wood and bold “FRAGILE” and “DO NOT DROP” stamped on the sides.

Light floods in through the windows, as morning diners stir sugar into their coffee and ponder the menu. The walls are neutral, painted tones of beige with gray highlights to match with another four-blade airplane prop hanging over the counter and a link trainer instrument panel hanging in the dining room.

The layout and decor is modern. Seemingly simple, even. But slight details — made by designer Judith Schultz — make the Airport Cafe completely different from anything that it has been before. The details, like the rounded Quonset-hut-style ceiling of old airports with corrugated metal, give the restaurant a completely new feel. Even the ceiling closest to the counter is open with beams and exposed seams that remind Kupka of patchwork on a quilt.

The dining room didn’t change much in size. The seating area is still in an L-shape, surrounding a counter and kitchen and is filled with tables that have each been redone.

What did change is the size of the kitchen, designed by Art Oelsner, of Cresco. Once a tiny work space is now three times its original size, with room for chefs and servers to move around freely and prep plates. Even in the kitchen, natural light floods in through windows that open to the back of the airport.

The bathrooms, too, have been completely remodeled to be be accessible to people with disabilities.

The place for breakfast and lunch

Some guests sit and enjoy a bowl of hearty oatmeal on their way to work, while others order coffee to go before they head over the Parachute Center. Early morning tends to be quiet, though tables fill around 9:30 with passersby who peruse the menu as the occasional subtle hum of a plane engine starts up and fades.

At breakfast, they browse a list of traditional favorites, and many of which have been on the menu forever and cooked up by chef Rick Schaffer, who has been with Lodi Airport Cafe for 23 years.

There are two egg breakfasts with ham, bacon or sausage and potatoes and toast. The French toast, buttermilk pancakes, apple pancakes and waffles cure that morning sweet tooth. There are omelets — the most popular being The Airport (sausage, grilled onions, sautéed mushrooms, avocado and jack cheese). And there are the pilot’s specials: Biscuits and gravy, a taco scramble, steel-cut oats loaded brown sugar, milk, raisins and pecans. The favorite special, though, is the focaccia sandwich, with grilled ham, scrambled eggs and American cheese on toasted focaccia bread, which JoAnn Kupka makes herself.

At lunchtime, the kitchen starts grilling up burgers and tossing salads. Burgers range from the classics to the gourmet turkey burger with honey Dijon, blue cheese crumbles, caramelized onions, avocado and tomato.

There are 10 unique sandwiches to choose, but the most popular are the chicken pesto on the focaccia and The Napoleon — roasted eggplant and zucchini, grilled onions, tomatoes and provolone cheese on focaccia with pesto aioli.

From chicken tortellini to teriyaki chicken, the salads are popular. But none is as loved as a  longtime favorite, The Sunshine. It’s a hearty salad filled with mixed greens, mandarin oranges, chopped pecans, green onions, cranberries, avocado, feta cheese and grilled chicken.

A family effort

Kupka has always felt comfortable in the kitchen. She’s waitressed. She’s been known to cook unique dinners for her friends.

She’s also passed on a culinary love to her daughter, Jennifer, 24, who has been working at the restaurant since it reopened.

Jennifer Kupka has been working at Lodi Airport Cafe since she was a teenager, and even started cooking on the line when she was 16. Now, she not only waitresses, she also designed the new menus and created some of the new gourmet burgers that are available.

“She does everything ... Thank heavens for her,” JoAnn Kupka said.

Though this is the third time Kupkas have renovated the diner, Robert Kupka still has bigger plans. His goal for the near future is for the Lodi Airport Cafe to have outdoor seating several days a week, where guests can enjoy beer and wine while watching planes land.

Robert Kupka would also like to see the 1943 Douglas C47 parked at the front of the airport converted into a bar. But that’s in the distant future, he says.

The everyday party

Kupka grew up in Plymouth in Amador County. She was a flight attendant in her early twenties, and then went to work for Owens Corning Corporation, where she was a purchaser for the glass bottle company for 25 years. She loved the job — the shopping, the travel. She was good at it.

When she took over The Airport Cafe, she didn’t quit Owens Corning for several years. But when she took over the restaurant her daughter was only a year old. And the restaurant itself has always been a lot of work.

Now, she enjoys every part of it, especially knowing that customers leave happy. It’s what makes running The Lodi Airport Cafe so rewarding.

“This is like giving a party every day,” she said.

Contact Lodi Living Editor Lauren Nelson at laurenn@lodinews.com.

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