Whenever Bobby Coyote has been asked about the origin of his name over the years, he has responded quickly: “Peter Coyote is Jewish, isn’t he?”
Indeed, and the parallels don’t end there. Peter Coyote, the Bay Area actor who was a leading player in the San Francisco counterculture scene in the ’60s and ’70s, was born Robert Peter Cohon. He changed his last name to Coyote after a drug-induced vision, and had he decided to pair it with his first name, there could have been two Jewish Bobby Coyotes.
But there’s only one, and he’s a Jewish kid from Los Angeles who was born Robert Davidson.
Thirty years ago, he changed the landscape for Southwestern food in the Sacramento area by opening the Dos Coyotes Border Café in Davis. Today, there are 12 Dos Coyotes restaurants in the Sacramento region, as well as a franchise location in San Ramon.
Dos Coyotes has received numerous accolades over the years, including “best burrito” in Sacramento Magazine and “best casual restaurant” in the local Style magazine. Coyote has been named restaurateur of the year by the Sacramento chapter of the California Restaurant Association, and the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors gave Dos Coyotes a sustainable business award.
With his successes, Coyote has made it a point to give back to the community.
In 2019, both Dos Coyotes locations in Davis raised money for the family of local police officer Natalie Corona, who was killed in the line of duty. “We wanted to try to help heal the community,” Coyote said. “Some places will give 20 cents on the dollar, but I said, ‘Let’s give everything.’”
The effort proved to be one of Dos Coyotes’ busiest nights ever, and $30,000 was raised for Corona’s family.
For the restaurant’s 25th anniversary in 2015, Coyote sponsored a giant burrito event that raised money for the Davis Farm to School program. The finished burrito was cut up and distributed to area shelters.
Coyote also has received civic commendations — from the city of Folsom for his contribution to the public arts, and from Davis for his support of a Fourth of July fireworks display.
But that kind of recognition was far from his mind 30 years ago when he was still trying to come up with a name for his restaurant.
Coyote, 63, said he considered “dozens upon dozens.” In the end, “Dos Coyotes came to me while driving along a stretch of freeway.”
Coyote created a menu (and a logo) based on what he thought would attract customers to the Southwestern food that he had come to love during visits to Santa Fe when he was young.
“I wanted it to be different, to serve food that you couldn’t get anywhere,” Coyote said, alluding to the fusion cuisine created by chefs in New Mexico.
Dos Coyotes’ original menu included adobe salads with edible flowers, a brie and papaya quesadilla, grilled onions served with burritos, and Southwestern bowls brimming with fresh, local ingredients. Tacos came in a soft, warm tortilla (not an unauthentic crispy one). Food was served on real plates, and drinks came in Mexican-made glasses.
Being surrounded by food is where Coyote is most comfortable.
When he was going to Hebrew school in Los Angeles, he used to ditch class to eat bagels at a nearby deli. (Fear not, he went on to have a bar mitzvah at the Conservative synagogue Adat Shalom.) At age 14, he was scooping ice cream at Baskin-Robbins. By age 16, he was working in a restaurant for minimum wage and free meals.
“It was all grunt work,” says Coyote. “Cleaning grease, scrubbing the bathrooms. I was always interested in making money and had an entrepreneurial spirit. I didn’t care what I had to do.”
While in high school in the mid-’70s, he began frequenting popular L.A. restaurants in an attempt to learn the ropes. One was Eduardo’s, where the owner took the eager youngster under his wing. Another was Café Figaro, where the owner invited him to work side-by-side with the line cooks.
“He saw it as three hours of free labor,” Coyote said. “I saw it as three hours of free learning about how to make great food.”
By 30, Coyote was married with a young child and was still working long hours at Café Figaro. “The restaurant closed at 2 or 3 a.m., which means I didn’t leave until 4,” Coyote recalled. “This was not how I could sustain a family.”
The idea of a Southwestern grill had been percolating in his mind, and when his sister Nita called to suggest an ideal location in a north Davis shopping center, the wheels were set in motion. Dos Coyotes’ grand opening was in January 1991.
Remembering the days leading up to it, Coyote said, “The contractor went bankrupt; the bank didn’t want to fund restaurant loans; the carpenter was second rate; the pipes cracked during inspection, shooting water everywhere; and someone knocked over the butter, which landed in oil, setting everything around it on fire.”
Broke and living off credit cards at the time, Coyote said he would have been happy to earn $20 on opening night. Instead, he took in $500, and after a positive review in the Sacramento Bee, things started looking up.
“After that, I was able to take a breath,” he said.
Today, the newly remarried Coyote (Rabbi Greg Wolfe at Bet Haverim officiated on June 7) is breathing much easier, and always looking to share his good fortune. “With everything you get,” it’s important to give back, he said. “It’s the nature of giving. It comes from the heart.”
Oh, and about his name? When the first Dos Coyotes was under construction three decades ago, an on-site construction worker answered the phone one day, turned to him and said, “Hey, Bobby Coyote — it’s for you.”