"The customers are my favorite part of the business," said Sheila. "Our motto here is 'enter as a customer, leave as a friend.' We have some great customers; it's like a family."
Sam worked at the restaurant for years as a bartender, so when the restaurant went up for lease, Sheila said he knew he had to have it. Red Caboose provides a novel dining environment: it's the only place in far East County where one can order a prime rib dinner complete with soup and salad in an actual red caboose.
Shipped by rail from Selma (near Fresno) and anchored in 1989 next to the bar and grill, then called "The Ramp," the Santa Fe caboose first went to the Fulton Shipyard for some sprucing up. "The Fulton Shipyard was where every young man in town built ships for the war," said Sheila.
When the caboose found its new home at 2655 Fulton Shipyard Road, it sat empty for a while until property owner Jim Baccio Jr. eventually leased it to someone who turned the bar and grill into a family-style restaurant.
Finding the actual restaurant is an adventure all on its own. If you take Fulton Shipyard Road off Wilbur Avenue, just drive over the tracks and follow the winding road until you see it on the left. "Husbands have brought their wives here and the wives have no clue where they are taking them. It's funny," said Sheila.
The restaurant's signature dish is the caboose burger. "It's our most popular burger," Sheila said. "It's 10 ounces and comes with a side of your choice of French fries, onion rings, macaroni, potato, or green salad. We give very generous servings and our tri-tip sandwiches are another popular lunch item."
Sheila tries to buy the ingredients for all the restaurant's offerings from local vendors. The only reason she buys her meat from Del Monte Meat Co. in Oakland is because Del Monte's salesman once owned a meat company in Oakley and formed a relationship with Sheila.
Born and raised in Dayton, Wash., Sheila said Sam was born in Dayton, Ohio. "And now we're both looking for a Dayton in California to settle down in." But it won't be anytime soon, since the restaurant keeps them wildly busy. "I always say we live at the restaurant and sleep somewhere else!"
Married for 38 years, and now married to the business, Sheila also worked as a nurse for Dr. Abe Kaplan in Brentwood for the last 38 years. She still works for him on Saturdays, which is why she welcomes summer help from her grandkids at the caboose. "What's fun about this place is that people can watch the train go by while eating in the caboose," she said, "and kids can fish for crawdads out front."
Parking is never an issue, and thanks to the large covered patio out back, neither is dining space.
Friday nights are family nights, when a lot of the regulars come and catch up on each other's lives and play the juke box. Live music, dances and parties are also on the menu. "There's a play yard for the kids and we have classic car shows on Wednesdays, where we give free hot dogs to the participants," Sheila said. "We usually get around 45 cars."
Karaoke night is set for Thursdays. Sheila wants people to know that "it's not just a bar, but a place for the whole family."
She classifies the menu as entirely American, occasionally incorporating Italian dishes "when the chefs feel like it. Friday nights we usually serve a fish entree, sometimes vodka spaghetti pasta with scampi, or salmon with bacon, tomato and peppers."
While the cost of products continually rises, Sheila said she won't pass those increases on to the customer. Lunch ranges from $4.95 to $8.95 and dinners cap at $16.95. "We call it fine dining at family prices," she said. "Running a restaurant is hard work, but you make friends for life."
Located at 2655 Fulton Shipyard Road, Red Caboose is open Tuesday through Friday for lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. (closed from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.); Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. (breakfast) to 9 p.m; and closed on Mondays. Call 777-1921.