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San Clemente Journal

Rainbow One Celebrates 50 Years

Jun 03, 2024 01:15PM ● By Don Kindred

Sparky was inducted into the Board Builders Walk of Fame in 2023. Above Outlet Manager Ryan Faring and Pat Huber join the celebration.

by Don Kindred

1972, Jay “Sparky” Longley wasn’t quite sure what he was going to do with his life, but he knew he wanted to make something that would last. Something people would buy and not just throw away. As a young man, Sparky had cut lawns for a living. Too many trips taking clippings to the dump impressed on him how many once-useful things are just tossed aside as worthless.
Through years of surfing, he learned that the easiest thing to find on a beautiful beach was what Jimmy Buffet described as a ‘blown-out flip-flop’. One day, he picked one up and the light came on, “I can do better than that.” He said to himself.

And Rainbow Sandals was born … Well, not exactly. First of all, he needed to make a pair, a quality pair. And he hadn’t even yet come up with the name. Like all great success stories, Longley’s started in a garage, this one in Laguna Beach. Ever the resourceful one, with his last $200, he put a downpayment for a press to cut the shapes and a grinder to finish them; he used a 2,000-pound-test webbing for the toe piece so it wouldn’t break. Next, he bought a sewing machine originally made for parachute straps in World War II. He sourced the best rubber in the world, then he found a way to improve it, a process that allowed the soles to mold to the foot. When he couldn’t find a glue that would last long enough for his three-step process, he came up with a new formulation. He was getting close. 

Founder Jay “Sparky” Longley started making six pairs a day in 1974.


When it came time for a name, he worked through several possibilities, Sun Sandals? Moon Sandals? He finally settled on Rainbow. “It has all the colors…” he said at the time. When he needed to design a logo, he just ‘borrowed’ one he saw at the Rainbow Hilton in Waikiki.
By 1974, Sparky had improved his process to the point that he could make up to six pairs a day to his meet his standards, he would walk down the street and sell them in the parking lot of the Sawdust Festival on Laguna Canyon Road. By only the second year, his success caught the attention of the City of Laguna Beach, who not-so-kindly suggested that he move out of town.
The rebuke was a blessing in disguise. A few of his friends suggested San Clemente, his initial reaction being, “What’s down there?”

When he took a scouting trip later that year, he turned right off Avenida Pico into the Surf Ghetto on Los Molinos. There was a ‘For Rent’ sign on what had been the Gregorian Copper Factory. (This once-local company had shipped hand-crafted copper bowls and candle holders around the globe, but that’s a whole other story).

The tiki-themed Rainbow Outlet on Los Molinos has become a tourist attraction.


“The landlord, Fred Gregory, was a great guy, he let me move in with $100 down and a promise to pay him another $150 in 10 days, “Rainbow was rolling,” he says to the sky. 
He moved in and started official production of the now-famous brand.


A company’s growth isn’t always steady, it’s like waiting for waves, you need to stay ready to paddle. He set a meeting with surf retail guru Dick Metz who agreed to test the sandals in Dana Point’s Hobie Surf Shop.

As Metz recalls. “Back then we sold these little rubber jobs that came from Japan, the toe would always come out and they always broke, but they were only 99 cents! Sparky was selling his sandals at five or ten times more than that. There were some wild colors and I thought they were too expensive,” Metz reminisces laughing, “but we took some on consignment.”
“They always sold.” Metz continues, shaking his head. “Sparky kept making them better and coming back with more ... we sold thousands of them, I know that ... Sparky was just one of those guys, like Hobie and Grubby Clark, John Severson, Bruce Brown, they all started working out of local garages and created great things, back then everything was new.”

Rainbow’s name and reputation grew, not on the investment of marketing dollars, but on ‘word of foot’. Surfers, beach lovers, and even a few celebrities shared the news of  the sandals as they traveled around, privately extolling the virtues of the fashionably functional footwear with the iconic tag.

By 2000, manufacturing had grown to 1,200 pair a day from Rainbow One and demand was exploding. Orders that were coming in from major chains like Nordstrom’s and Dillard’s could push their sales to five or 10 times that amount. New styles and fabrics were in the works. 
But the peaking momentum was soon tempered by the EPA. State Regulators (the very same ones that spelled the end of the run for Clark Foam’s surfboard blanks in Laguna Niguel) were forcing changes. Sparky had figured out how to utilize a Volkswagen-sized catalytic oxidizer to take the bad stuff out of the air during the gluing process, but it was a temporary fix. The State of California soon limited his production in San Clemente back down to 1,000 pairs a day ... and again came the suggestion that he build his manufacturing operation elsewhere.

Rainbows in China
“The challenge with manufacturing overseas, of course,” Sparky says, “was maintaining the quality. These are hand-made products and quality is what our brand was built on. That’s what our customers expect and we had to keep at it until we got it right. We had to do the same thing over there,” Sparky says, the old tenacity still intact. “In 2011, 2.5 million pairs were shipped over from China and we hand-inspected all of them. They soon got the message, “We’re not compromising.”

 Today, Rainbow distributes out of a modern 52,000 sq.ft. headquarters in the San Clemente Business Park. Rainbow Five, as they call it, being one of five commercial buildings Sparky owns in San Clemente. This is where most of his 80 employees oversee the physical movement of eight million pair of sandals in over 30 styles, all in a half a dozen colors and sizes, to over 8,300 outlets in 17 countries. It was a long way from six pairs a day.

Work Hard, Play Harder ... Give Back
Sparky still goes to the office every day. Unless of course, he’s surfing or paddling, or heli-skiing glaciers in Canada. He earned his pilot’s license in the ‘70s and has owned a range of planes, from prop race planes to private jets. He is also a farmer, growing avocados and wine grapes at his ranch in Temecula. But he still maintains a well-deserved reputation for his long hours at work, still the heart and soul of his company.

Repair, Reuse, Recycle
Dressed in his trademark t-shirt, shorts,  sandals and shadowed by his faithful dog, Bentley, he generally starts his day back at Rainbow One, where he’ll spend a couple of hours repairing used sandals by hand.

Still true to his original intention, the company’s, “Repair, Reuse, Recycle” philosophy is more than a slogan, every year they repair more than 1,200 pairs, which are not only kept out of the landfill, but are sanitized, re-soled and donated to worthy causes and needy feet around the world. Trimmed rubber is recycled, every cardboard box that comes in is turned inside out and repurposed for shipping out to their customers.


His environmental efforts include building one of the city’s largest solar energy installations on Rainbow Five’s 30,000 sq ft roof and a small fleet of electric cars. As far a giving back, Sparky has become a prolific philanthropist. Through the company’s Rainbow Sandals Foundation he donates close to $1 million per year.
In 2020 alone, when most or all of the company’s 8,000+ retail outlets were closed do to Covid 19, the Foundation gave over 100 charities donations ranging from $5,000 to $50,000. “They needed the money” he says matter-of-factly.

There are few local charities that haven’t benefited from the Rainbow Sandals Foundation. He pays special attention to local youth organizations and hopes to “offer guidance where he can, to encourage them to be focused and set priorities for themselves earlier in life.” 

At the ranch, Sparky saw first-hand how many avocados and citrus were being wasted from not only his farm but all his neighbors. When they no longer had the time to make it through the wait time of the grocery food chains, the still-healthy fruit was being tossed. 

He got the Rainbow Sandals Foundation to buy a couple of trucks and he came up with a plan to distribute it quickly, to needy people and organizations throughout Orange County. Today over 150 tons of fruit that would have been rotting away are distributed to over 25 outlets ranging from Second Harvest to San Clemente seniors and churches.
Rainbow One to Celebrate

50 Years on June 21, 2024
After five decades, the original tiki-themed Rainbow Sandals factory/outlet on Calle de los Molinos has become something of a tourist attraction. It’s a ritual destination for visitors and locals alike. They come, not to replace last year’s models, but to add to their collections or share stories of how long their sandals have lasted. They send hand-written tales or poetry and tales of their long-suffered soles. The walls are adorned with notes and images framed like a Hall of Fame for the well-worn. 

This year, the company he built in the original Los Molinos building will celebrate 50 years. They will be holding a special celebration on Friday, June 21st, which corresponds with Sparky’s 80th birthday.

And Sparky’s still Sparky
“None of his success has changed him,” says friend and Surfer’s Journal Publisher, Steve Pezman. “He still plays as hard as he works. He goes all-in on everything he does. He appreciates his success and keeps it in perspective because it came rather suddenly and unexpectedly after 20 years of struggle. He’s the same guy he’s always been through it all. He remains devoted to his family, his friends, his employees and his community.”