by Dave DelVal, photos by Don Kindred
Open since last June, Schleppy's on the Pier is a combination café and souvenir business that also sells bait and rents fishing poles.
Boasting a most uncommon name (a nickname, says owner Carl Kepner) and a unique location (a quarter of a mile from the start of the San Clemente Pier), Schleppy's is the epitome of a locals' place, according to its owner, a resident of San Clemente since 1976.
"I never in a million years would have imagined myself running a business such as this," Kepneradmits. "I used to own a retail business in Dana Point Harbor (Kepner's Kastle), which I operated for 18 months. But, when I happened to read about this place being for sale, I saw a terrific opportunity to create something really special."
Kepner's "vision" was to create a place where people could meet, relax and hangout, away from the noise and stress of every day life. And what better place to do this than the pier?
"Just look at the view," he says, arms sweeping the horizon. "What could be better than this? People of all ages come here to enjoy the pier and the ocean. The tranquility and beauty are incredible."
Fulfilling his vision was not easy, admits Kepner, who said the process from buying the business to renovating it took several months. "Lots of paperwork," he moans. "Too much of it, in fact."
It seems the 400-square-foot site that houses Schleppy's was built in 1927. "I was told that I am the fourth owner," he reveals. "The previous owner was here for six years, and had hoped to be here at least another five, but he became ill and had to sell."
After purchasing the business and changing the name, Kepner began a massive renovation, adding a grill and espresso machine, and completely redoing the interior.
"We make the most of our space," he proudly notes during a brief tour. "You should have seen how the place was when I bought it. It was more of a fish and bait operation than anything else. For decades, the town wanted to see something such as what we have here built, a combination eatery and retail operation. I was able to get this done, happily, and a lot sooner than I thought it would take."
Kepner obviously enjoys the people aspect of his business the best, noting that the majority of his customers are repeat ones.
"We open at 7 a.m. specifically to take care of a group of about 20 seniors who live here and come to the pier every morning to talk and relax," he boasts. "During the summer, it's real crazy here, with people of all ages staying way into the night. That's the best time of the year."
Manager Melinda Smart, also a San Clemente resident, agrees. "We had lines of people 20-deep last summer," she remarks. "It was incredible. All the kids were asking for cotton candy and snow cones. You don't see this type of a business everywhere. It's really special."
Kepner echoes Smart's words by noting that creating an "old time" place was part of his vision. "There was a time when businesses such as mine were everywhere along the coast," he remembers. "Mom and pop operations where owners knew their customers' names. You don't see much of that anymore, although we do have some of that here in San Clemente, fortunately. Well, I wanted to bring back that feeling and I am happy to report that we've been able to do that."
As proof of his words he points to a pair of tables in front of his business, each one bearing a checkers game and both being enjoyed. "See that?" he remarks admiringly, "At one table you have a young couple playing checkers, and at the other table there is an older couple playing. How often do you see that?