Podge’s rings in two decades with nod to citrus industry

Podge’s Claremont Juice Co., a culinary mainstay on Yale Avenue in the Claremont Village, is celebrating its 20 years in business. Owners Uvon and Joseph Cisneros are marking the occasion in a way that’s dear to the heart of Claremonters: through public art.

They’ve commissioned Jeanine Hattas Wilson to create a mural spanning two walls of the courtyard behind the eatery, a peaceful retreat with patio seating and a tinkling fountain.

In a tribute to the town’s agricultural past and the century-old status of the building housing Podge’s, Ms. Hattas Wilson has opted to paint a scene of local citrus workers in the early 20th century.

Some are perched on ladders, picking oranges, while others have been charged with packing and carrying crates of the sun-warmed fruit. Ms. Hattas Wilson’s skill at perspective can be seen on the north wall, where a steam engine chugs out of town laden with produce. “You can sit here and hear the train whistle while you look at the train,” Ms. Cisneros said. 

The Cisneroses were impressed by the work on Ms. Hattas Wilson’s website. They interviewed another candidate, but they preferred her ideas and her price.

She didn’t have too reach to far to come up with a vision for Podge’s, considering the business has a prevailing motif. A mosaic featuring oranges graces the outside of the shop and is repeated near the counter where folks pick up items like sandwiches, smoothies and fortifying shots of wheatgrass.

More oranges are painted near the ceiling of Podge’s, the walls are hung with framed orange crate labels and every sandwich is served with an orange wedge garnish. The mural, which was coming along nicely when the COURIER stopped by  Tuesday, doesn’t just beautify the courtyard. It also serves a practical purpose.

When the Cisneroses bought Podge’s from the Amato family five-and-a-half years ago, they found the patio area charming. They discovered a problem, however, when they were asked to cut down the ivy that climbed the north-facing wall. The large, white-painted surface—and its twin on the west side of the courtyard—was remarkably efficient at capturing and reflecting the afternoon sunlight.

“You’d come out here with your sandwich and be blinded. You couldn’t see anything. I’ve always wanted a mural here. Look at this nice green here,” Ms. Cisneros said, indicating a portion of the mural near the shop’s back door. “It’s easier on the eyes.”

Making bare surfaces easier on the eyes is Ms. Hattas Wilson’s stock-in-trade. The Lake Balboa resident and her twin sister Julie began painting when they were six. As high school students in the Chicago area, they volunteered to paint a mural at a disability center.

“That kind of opened my eyes that this was something I can do,” Jeanine said.

After high school, the sisters enrolled at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. In 2002, a newly-graduated Ms. Hattas Wilson took a job at an ad agency while her twin embarked on a career as a graphic designer.

Then, a friend asked Ms. Hattis Wilson to paint an underwater scene on the walls of her bathroom. “Watching people coming in and seeing their reaction, I thought, ‘I could do this every day,’” she said.

She began dividing her time between the agency and a burgeoning mural business, working 80-hour weeks before quitting her day job. She’s since created more than 2000 murals in 11 different states.

One of her most iconic creations is a mural of an orange crate label she painted on the side of an 80-foot water tower in San Dimas. Ms. Hattas Wilson was perched precipitously on a boom lift during the painting process, a vantage that would strike fear in the heart of anyone with acrophobia. She’s sanguine about heights though, saying, “I grew up climbing trees.”

Besides, climbing and carrying are some of the key job qualifications for a muralist.

“There is a lot of carrying ladders and climbing scaffolding and bringing stuff back and forth. It’s physically intensive, as compared to sitting and working on a canvas,” Ms. Hattas Wilson said.

A year ago, she enlisted fellow artist Ian Burgess to work with her. A prolific muralist himself, he had traded public art for a gig working with computers when the recession hit. In fact, he was looking for another computer job when he ran across Ms. Hattas Wilson. The pair has worked on 20 projects in the past year, from Arcadia to Orange to Laguna.

“He was a godsend,” Ms. Hattas Wilson said. “Painters are very expressive, and to find someone who does things so similarly is rare. We’ve got the same pace and style, and we both care about the people we’re painting for. We want to execute their vision.”

Ms. Cisneros hopes plenty of people see the result of her vision.

“I find out there’s quite a few people who don’t know the courtyard is here. Even the mailman was recently surprised,” Ms. Cisneros noted. “He said, ‘You have seating in the back?’ After we unveil the new mural, we might put a sign in the front encouraging people to enjoy the patio.”

The mural is a new addition to a shop whose traditions have become longstanding.

When the Cisneroses acquired Podge’s, they inherited an already-healthy customer base. They chose to leave the menu, with its focus on fresh ingredients, largely intact. One exception is Ms. Cisneros’ addition of a green drink, made with kale, spinach, cucumbers, celery, apple, ginger and lemon. “It’s a way to drink your veggies,” Ms. Cisneros said. 

It’s very much a family enterprise. Ms. Cisneros, a retired teacher, runs the kitchen and front of the restaurant. Her husband, a private contractor who has worked on government defense contracts for the past 30 years, handles the finances.

And over the years, four of the couple’s five children have worked at the shop. The youngest, a senior at Bonita High School, still serves up sandwiches and smoothies.

“Mom presses them into service,” Ms. Cisneros said. “It’s good. They have spending money. I tell them how fortunate they are.”

Podge’s Claremont Juice Co. is located at 124 Yale Ave. in Claremont. For information, call (909) 626-2216 or visit podgesclaremontjuice.com. To see more of Ms. Hattas Wilson’s work, visit hattas.com. 

—Sarah Torribio



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