Explaining Southern California's economy

Small businesses are sad to see 'The Tonight Show' leave Burbank

Jeff Chean

Brian Watt/KPCC

Coffee entrepreneur Jeff Chean says "having a stable customer like the 'The Tonight Show' was crucial" to developing his businesses.

Ruben Arreola at Mo's

Brian Watt/KPCC

Ruben Arreola says almost every day, someone named "Jack" from "The Tonight Show" calls and places the same order.

Tonight Show Leaving - 3

Brian Watt/KPCC

Robert Shapiro of Milt & Edie's Drycleaners in Burbank.


The Tonight Show with Jay Leno is preparing for its last broadcast Thursday night. After 42 years, the show is heading back to New York City, where Jimmy Fallon will take over. More than 150 people at NBC will lose their jobs in the move, and some local businesses will feel the pinch. 

At Mo's restaurant in Burbank, 30-year-old Ruben Arreola manages the to-go orders. He said almost every day, an order comes in from The Tonight Show.

"It could be like an order for the whole staff or just one separate person," said Arreola, who has worked at Mo's for 14 years along with his father and brother. He said the most frequent order from the show comes from someone named Jack.

"'Tonight Show for Jack', I’ve never met the man, but I know I make his breakfast and dinner every day," Arreola said.  "The kitchen knows his order by heart.  You just say “Jack’s order” and they make it."

The owner of Mo’s  said he knows tourists who come to Burbank to watch a Tonight Show taping often find their way to Mo’s.  But Ruben Arreola will miss the take-out customers.

"It means less work obviously," he said.  "It’s kind of a routine we always do every week so it’s kind of weird not have the 'Tonight Show' order."   

Just a couple of blocks away, the staff at Milt and Edie's Drycleaners and Tailoring Center has removed a lot of last minute stains for "The Tonight Show."

 "They might have a guest who’s spilled something on their clothes, and they’re an hour and a half away  from taping,"  said General Manager Robert Shapiro. "They come into our store and they’re like begging us to get it done as quickly as we can.  So we’ll hand clean it, and we’ll deliver it to them."

Milt and Edie’s is celebrating 25 years in business.  It’s open around the clock and employs 70 people, including 17 tailors.  It cleans and alters a lot of costumes for television shows.   Shapiro said the shop has done work for Jay Leno himself  and many “Tonight Show” staffers.

"It’s really sad but all good things come to an end. Jay Leno was quite an institution here," Shapiro said.  

 Like a lot of people who serve the film and television industry,  Shapiro has seen plenty of productions leave town.  He hates to lose the business, but says Milt and Edie’s has built a solid local customer base.

"Fortunately, our business is great, you know we’re constantly growing.   But this one segment of our operation might be shrinking, and you don’t like to see shows like 'The Tonight Show' leave," Shapiro said.

"The Tonight Show is one of those programs that’s a halo," said Kevin Klowden, who heads the Milken Institute's California Center.  "It reflects on the city, it brings people in.  It helps profile different elements of the city."

Klowden is the author of "Film Flight: Lost Production and Its Economic Impact in California."

 '[The Tonight Show] doesn't create the same kind of secondary impact that an ongoing drama series that uses constantly changing sets does," Klowden said.  “That being said, the 'Tonight Show' leaving doesn’t just mean a loss of jobs for the people there, it means a loss of income for a lot of local businesses."  

One of those businesses is Joe To Go, the on-set coffee catering company Jeff Chean founded in 1994.  He started by himself on the sets of “Days of Our Lives,” "Saved By the Bell and "California Dreaming"  on the NBC lot.    Chean said the smell of his coffee would waft over to other sound stages, bringing crews over to raid his tables.   Eventually, the 'Tonight Show' crew got wind of his brew, but it would take two years to get the contract.  Chean still remembers the day. 

"The whole production day stopped. Everyone was on their walkie-talkie headphones, and one by one, they held a vote:  whether it was going to be me coming in or the other coffee service at that time, and we won the vote," Chean said.    The vote launched the next wave of his company's growth. "It was quite the feather in your hat. And you can take that say ‘yes, we’re working with 'the Tonight Show’ and go to other shows and they would follow suit." 

Chean went on to start his own coffee roasting company, The Supreme Bean, which eventually merged with the Los Angeles-based coffee roaster and retailer Groundwork.  He said his companies now employ 120 people, and that the Tonight Show contract represents about eight percent of his on-set coffee catering business.

"It's going to be sad," Chean said of the show's move to New York. "Is it going to affect the bottom line of that business?  Absolutely. But the industry is not known for stability."

Even so, for more than four decades, the Tonight Show did provide stability to many small businesses downtown Burbank.  

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