The Original Pancake House is a humble joint, a place where upholstered booths and speckled tables hold coffee in white porcelain mugs. People sit on wooden stools at the counter to watch chefs plate their short stacks and breakfast burritos.
Prior to that, he studied philosophy at Milwaukee's Marquette University in the 1960s. The wisdom Horton gleaned seems to have stuck with him.
"You don't just quit when times are tough. That's what measures a person," he says, in his soft-spoken demeanor, sitting in a booth near the host stand.
"I don't think most people know what they're getting themselves into. Before you open a restaurant, ask yourself, do you have the stamina to make it through?"
Horton has made it through the last 34 years gracefully. Some of that grit and grace, he says, he learned at his Illinois high school where he was one of only seven Black students in a student body of 3,500. There, he was co-captain of the track team.
"You can make color a differentiating factor if you want to, but I wasn't brought up to feel that way," he says.
Horton joined business and civic groups when he moved to metro Phoenix in 1984 to get the lay of the land, refusing to feel like an outsider.
"I wouldn't want to be anything but Black because I know your struggle will never be as hard as mine," he says. "And in the end, my achievement will be bigger."
Since opening the diner in the late '80s, he has been serving dishes like the Dutch Baby, a descendant of the German pancake that puffs up like a soufflé when baked in a cast-iron skillet inside a hot oven, then falls once it's removed. Topped with powdered sugar and served with whipped butter and lemon, it's one of Horton's favorite dishes alongside the 49'er Flapjacks, plate-sized crepe-like pancakes similar to the ones miners ate during the California Gold Rush in 1849.
Restaurants come and go frequently in Scottsdale, but Horton remains at his humble diner alongside manager Connie Miller, who has been there for 17 years.
Prior to working at the Original Pancake House, Miller ran a sub shop in Arcadia with her husband Jim for 25 years. She knows a little something about keeping regulars happy.
Horton keeps a level of familiarity with customers, stopping to say hello to a family or asking how the food was multiple times throughout our conversation. Amid the high pace and flashiness of Scottsdale, the Original Pancake House is a homey spot to slow down with some pancakes, bacon, French crepes, and sunny-side-up eggs amid friends and family. Horton favors the classic way of doing things.
"For 27 years, I had a sign on the door that said turn your phone off. We were cash only until 2015," he says, pointing to an ATM machine in the corner that now reads, "Out of Order."
Horton looks around, content with what he has built. He's thinking of what's next, spending time with his five stepchildren and enjoying life without so much hustle.
"I'm going to sell this restaurant one of these days," he says. "But I put so much blood, sweat, and tears into it. I don't know if other people are willing to do all that."
6840 East Camelback Road, Scottsdale
The Original Pancake House