Documentation of Altadena’s history is abundant throughout the neighborhood, an unincorporated area just north of Pasadena and a dozen or so miles from Downtown Los Angeles. Walk into the town’s midcentury library and take a step back into the 1960s. Saddle up to Rancho Bar, one of Altadena’s dives, to find photos and signage of the Mount Lowe Railway while getting to know longtime residents drinking at the bar. For those in town during the day in search of homemade vegan food, step through the “cosmic organic breezeway” of Oh Happy Days and order a hot, hearty meal. The casual restaurant and grocery store, known as a community meeting space as much as for its food, has made its place in the vibrant history of this town.
Owner John Hopkins, 75 years old, has been living a vegan lifestyle for years, inspired by activism and political counterculture of the 1960s. Born and raised in El Monte, he moved to Altadena in the late 1960s with friends while attending Cal State Los Angeles. Hopkins was involved in the antiwar movement on campus, and then moved on to the ecology movement, where he became interested in holistic nutrition. “By the time I got to age 30,” he says, “I decided I wanted to have my own store.” He found further inspiration while on a trip to San Francisco, visiting a worker-owned food cooperative called Rainbow Grocery.
Hopkins opened the first location of Oh Happy Days on El Molino in Pasadena in 1977, then moved it to South Lake Avenue before settling on its current location on North Lake Avenue in Altadena in 1990. The storefront, which used to be a laundromat where Hopkins did his laundry as a college kid, is on a block of independently-owned businesses. Rhythms of the Village, a business two doors down, hosts a market and festival in the parking lot behind the store bi-annually, which Hopkins vends at and which brings a big crowd of locals.
The energy inside Oh Happy Days is calming and quiet. A fan hums to circulate air, and music softly plays through speakers. Tall wooden shelving lines the yellow walls of the space. On top of these shelves rest figurines from around the world, books, a framed photograph of the Dalai Lama, a small print of the peace sign, and the classic “Hippies Use Backdoor” sign. Works by artists, many local, hang from the walls. Tibetan prayer flags sway from the ceiling in front of the cash register that Hopkins works behind, preparing food orders.
By the afternoon, customers trail into the cafe, which one local describes as an “eclectic bohemian enterprise” with “the ambiance of an old-school beatnik hippie vibe.” Hopkins knows many of these customers by name because they eat here so often.
The menu is handwritten on cards that are tacked up by the cash register counter; and customer-favorite dishes include the tofu and tempeh stir-fry served over brown rice and steamed greens, a salad with a creamy dressing, and the Great Noodle Mix-Up: a combination of two different noodles with tofu and greens. Hopkins cooks all the hot food, while his assistant, Ann Earhard, bakes bread in-house. He says the most popular item on the menu is the soup of the day. “Soup is a marvelous invention. I can offer a good-sized bowl at a moderate price that is very nourishing. It’s a meal in a bowl if done correctly,” says Hopkins.
Customers can either eat at one of the three wooden tables inside or at smaller tables outside. “People just come here to relax,” says Hopkins. “It’s my morning prayer that the store be a place of refuge and nourishment for the community. People come here to eat.”
While perusing the many shelves, visitors can find plant-based cookies, vitamins, tinctures, teas, toothpaste, chips, and seed packets. A fridge of water, kombucha, yerba mate, and other drinks makes up one corner of the store. In this fridge, Hopkins puts leftover cooked vegetables for sale, as well as sandwiches filled with tofu and assorted vegetables that customers grab after hikes on a local trail. Bulk bins filled with teas, herbs, lentils, and nutritional yeast sit in the back of the store, along with baskets of fruits and vegetables.
The worker-owned food cooperatives sprinkled throughout the West Coast, one of which inspired Oh Happy Days, are enriching for the stomach, the spirit, and the local economy. One can grab a snack and a cold drink, then sit down for a bowl of soup, often bumping into a neighbor or friend. In Los Angeles County, it often feels like there is a dearth of these experiences, but Oh Happy Days, an unmistakably independent and community-driven joint, remains the San Gabriel Valley’s answer to this model of the hippie co-op. When asked how the community shapes Oh Happy Days, Hopkins says, “it’s kind of reciprocal. Altadena hasn’t changed that much. It’s still Altadena.”