At the T-Street Snack Bar on the sand in San Clemente, a line of salty teenagers gathered at the counter to get their afternoon fix of a swirl ice cream cone or a cool shave ice.
For decades, the concession stand’s menu has featured the usual sweet treats and beach bites: burgers and corn dogs, chili cheese fries and nachos. It’s a time warp on this sliver of sand just steps from the ocean, where you can get Lemonheads and Boston Baked Beans for 50 cents a box, a lollipop for a quarter or a piece of gum for a dime.
Now, the T-Street Snack Bar south of the popular pier is undergoing changes and the Wilson family, which has operated the concession since 1990, has been told by the city their contract ends after the Fourth of July, news they just learned a few weeks ago.
City officials are looking at ways to bring in more revenue at four city-owned concessions, including the T-Street location, a stand on the pier and another abandoned building on the sand at North Beach. All are on a month-to-month lease.
In 2020, the city hired consultant Food Facilities Worldwide to create a “Food and Beverage Strategic Plan” to find out what the industry standards were for concession operators and how they could improve operations.
“The goal here is to get the most value for those buildings, while also still maintaining the heart of the community,” Samantha Wylie, the city’s recreation manager, said at a recent council meeting discussing the consultant’s suggestions.
It’s a trend toward the upscale seen along the coastline with ocean-front property viewed as a valuable commodity. State Parks has been reviewing its leases as well, planning new concessions schemes at Huntington Beach and Doheny State Beach.
The new coastal concepts mean a wave of change as those who have been serving up the community for years depart.
“It’s bitter-sweet,” said Tracey Wilson, daughter of owner Edie, while both took a break from serving customers on a recent day to talk about their long history at the T-Street concession. “It is definitely the end of an era, that’s for sure. It will not be the same.”
The beach shack was originally operated by Richard “Dick” Cropley, who started the business in 1962 and became known as “Mr. T-Street.”
When Cropley was ready to retire, he asked good friend Craig Wilson, who already owned a donut shop in San Clemente and the Doheny Saloon in Dana Point, if he wanted to buy the lease.
At first, wife Edie was unsure of taking on a new venture. But then, she took a look at T-Street beach.
“I came down and I loved it,” Edie Wilson said. “I loved the people.”
The Wilsons kept the same food Cropley served on the menu, making sure to serve his exact same Thousand Island recipe on the burgers that locals loved. There’s only been one major addition to the menu in decades, they said, the “Wilson Burger,” a double cheeseburger with bacon and all the fixings.
Edie Wilson and her husband worked the stand together and when Tracey was born, she had no choice but to sit in her ocean-view high chair all day or play on the sand while her parents served customers.
“I literally grew up in this building. I have a picture of me taking baths in that sink,” Tracey Wilson said with a chuckle. “I couldn’t leave, my parents were here.”
Tracey Wilson was put to work at age 11, and the Wilsons would hire older teens for summer jobs. Then they’d go away, get married and return with their kids. Then, those kids would work the stand.
It was the same for customers: some now grandparents, have made stopping at the beach concession part of their annual family vacations.
“People have been coming every day since they learned we won’t be here, taking photos,” Edie Wilson said, noting people from Las Vegas and Havasu have been among those stopping to say their goodbyes.
The family vibe is why Shannon Stevenson started working at the stand a few years ago, drawn by her own memories as a kid eating there with church camps or on beach days with her family.
“It’s just nice watching all the generations and families,” she said. “Seeing the happiness and the light in the kids’ eyes when they come to that window, it’s everything.”
When Craig Wilson died in 2004, Edie Wilson kept the business afloat with the help of her daughter. A memorial tribute was placed on glass near the front counter: “You’ll Never Be Forgotten.”
“I think it’s harder for me. Since my father died, this has been my happy memory place and now that’s going to be gone, it’s a little more difficult,” Tracey Wilson said.
The city looked at bringing in other operators before, the Wilsons said. When the lease went up for bid in 2013, the family won it with their affordable prices and family friendly atmosphere, Edie Wilson said.
The latest proposed changes were discussed at the May 4 City Council meeting with each location – the T-Street Beach stand, Pier Bait and Tackle, North Beach stand and Richard Steed Memorial Park stand – analyzed for their revenue potential.
T-Street is desirable because it’s the only nearby food and beverage operation for thousands of beach visitors, without traveling north to the pier, the consultant’s report said. A beach trail created 15 years ago has about a million people pass by each year, adding to the value.
“The location attracts trail users and beachgoers on a year-round basis and is now host to an increasing amount of surf contests and permitted beach activities,” the report adds.
At the council meeting, various options were explored, including negotiating new terms with the current concessionaire to expand hours and increase the rent. Tracey Wilson told the city they could extend the stand’s hours, but no discussion followed, she said.
Also discussed was getting bids for a “pop-up” that would operate for 60 days to 90 days as part of a one-year pilot program, or having the city run the year-round concession.
The consultants said the agreement between the Wilsons for 13% of annual gross sales from Memorial Day to Labor Day may have been a reasonable rent in 1991, but isn’t enough to even cover the cost of cleaning the building or utilities today, noting San Clemente gets an average of $7,150 each year from the operation.
“The current agreement in place does not align with similar restaurants located on a public beach,” the consultants said in their report. “There is tremendous potential for the city to accrue tens of thousands of dollars with a different lease agreement or manage in-house.”
The city’s Economic Development officer, Jonathan Lightfoot, said one of the major goals is expanding the hours of operations for morning service and to operate beyond just summer.
A “bridge” operator will come in soon, ideally in about a week after the Wilson family’s departure, he said.
Edie Wilson thinks it will take longer to get equipment, supplies and inspections completed, making her worry about youngsters who may show up on the sand looking for their summer treats.
“I’m not thinking about being a millionaire,” Edie Wilson said. “This is my heart.”
Finishing off the summer would have also helped financially, with all of their revenue banked in just the few months of the busy summer season. The two women are now scrambling to sell off all the kitchen equipment, which they can not carry out on their own.
At age 75, Edie Wilson said this likely would have been her last summer, but she would have liked to have finished off the season saying goodbye to longtime customers. Stevenson started a petition with hopes the city will allow them to stay for the entire summer.
“It’s just the way it is ended out for us is just kind of a sad thing,” Tracey Wilson said.
On a recent day, Ellie Martin, 13, led a group of junior guards finishing their first day to the counter to order ice cream cones, the four youngsters walking over alone before meeting their moms.
“It’s just fun, a little fun independent reward,” mom Colleen Martin said.
Steve Bogusiewicz, 55, has been going to the T-Street concession his entire life. He has his regular routine: a cheeseburger followed by a swirl frosty cone he eats on the sand while watching surfers ride waves in the distance.
So what kept him coming back all these years?
“The people,” he said. “The burger is pretty darn good, but it’s the people.”
He’s going to miss the Wilson family and food they’ve served up for decades. “It’s going to be a sad day.”
Source: Orange County Register