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O.B. coffeeshop wars between the Little Chef and Old Townhouse

Markos Voulgaris and Chris Caplaneris used to be friends

Looking west from the corner of Newport Avenue and Cable Street in Ocean Beach, the hard angular marquee of the Strand Theater is the dominant landmark. The Strand has also been pilloried of late – local residents demonstrated their irritation at the Strand’s new owners, Pussycat Theaters, for changing the theater’s film fare from general entertainment to hard-core sex. But there are other squalls rattling the windows along Newport Avenue.

Within one hundred yards of the Newport and Cable intersection, there are at least twelve restaurants: Mexican, barbecue, health food, hot dogs, falafel, sandwiches, and omelets. Among this potpourri are two American-style coffee shops owned by Greek immigrants. Markos Voulgaris and Chris Caplaneris. Markos owns the Little Chef on Newport and Cable; Chris’s Old Townhouse is across the street and half a block down, facing the Strand Theater. Chris and Markos both arrived in San Diego in the early 1970s; Chris from the Greek island of Elvias, way of Toronto, where he worked on the assembly lines of De Havilland aircraft; Markos from Athens, then Chicago, where he learned the restaurant business. Both men have a regular morning and luncheon clientele, both have made enough money to buy and sell modest real estate holdings, and now they may be forcing one another out of business by butting heads in competition for the limited breakfast trade.

The source of their conflict is a vacant shell of a building next door to Chris’s Old Townhouse restaurant. It is there that Markos would like to relocate his Little Chef. The new Little Chef would have a stainless-steel kitchen, ceramic floor, Tiffany-style lamps, and new booths and tables for more than one hundred diners. Markos has already invested $70,000 in the renovation project of the now-vacant storefront, which he purchased for $160,000 in 1979. It has a new ceiling and walls, new bathrooms and electrical wiring.

Chris, like a frenzied guard dog, has snapped at Markos’s intended move every step of the way. He made appearances before the Ocean Beach Planning Board to oppose the renovation, and when the state coastal commission debated the project this summer, Chris mustered his attorney, a friendly local building contractor, and one of his waitresses, and all of them marched up to San Mateo, to the commission’s offices, to argue against the permits. Markos eventually prevailed, and if he could see any humor in the outcome, he’d probably grab Chris by the chef’s collar and laugh in his Greek face – loudly. So Markos now has the necessary permits to continue his remodeling, contingent on his construction of fourteen new parking places for his patrons. Naturally Markos thinks the parking requirement is unfair; it means he would have to tear down the rear portion of his building and pave and stripe a mini-parking lot. None of the other restaurateurs on Newport Avenue have ever had to worry about providing parking, he grumbles in agitation. Why him? This is un-American. But having already invested so much money in the project, and having put up his family home as equity for a $60,000 loan to finish the remodeling, he can’t risk the project. He won’t argue with those people in San Mateo any more. But with Chris, he’ll still argue.

Chris and Markos used to be friends. They met in 1973 when Chris was working on the Convair aircraft assembly lines and Markos was newly installed behind the big, cast-iron stove at the Little Chef. Chris, who us tall and lanky, with straight black hair, lived in an East San Diego apartment, next door to Markos’s brother-in-law. Chris and Markos saw each other frequently – whenever there was a minor repair to be done at the Little Chef, Chris came by to help out; and sometimes they’d join a group of Greek friends for a drink on the weekends. If a Greek movie was screened here, Chris and Markos both would be in the audience. When Chris decided to get out of the aircraft business and paid $8000 for a small restaurant of his own, Markos lent him a Little Chef menu. Chris recalls that he needed that, and all the other help he could get, when he opened a forty-three seat café on Forty-third Street and University Avenue in East San Diego. “I didn’t even know how to boil an egg,” he remembers. “We didn’t even have a slicing machine, so the ham came out in crooked pieces.”

Still, he hung a huge “Grand Opening” banner, and, in the winter of 1973, opened the doors to Louie’s. (The name was not changed from the previous owners.) “The first day we did $215 in business,” Chris remembers. “But then, everything went wrong. I couldn’t cook anything, the stove kept blowing up in my face. It was a mess.” The second day virtually no one returned, and Chris counted just eighty-five dollars in the cash register. He had sacrificed, had scrimped and saved on the Convair assembly line (sometimes he would wear the same pair of pants for two weeks straight) and he wouldn’t go back to that old job. Instead, he found a retired chef, also a Greek, who agreed to take command of the stove at Louie’s. They were soon making a profit. Today Chris wonders aloud why he ever had fears his venture might fail. “I had this burning sensation that I could succeed, that I could climb the ladder,” he says immodestly as he toys nervously with a cigarette in one of the six vinyl-covered booths that line the wall of his Old Townhouse restaurant. He pounds the table now with excitement, jabbing his black, half-rimmed glasses up the slope of his nose as he talks, and they slide back down. “I saw Markos. He wasn’t an excellent cook, he didn’t have lots of brains. I had a high school diploma – two high school diplomas from Greece and Canada – and here was Markos making more money than I was at Convair. Yet he had less knowledge of life, knew less about how to associate with people than I did, and still he was doing better.”

Chris and Markos, not so successful and reasonably successful, remained friends. It was Markos, in fact who told Chris that the Newport Avenue storefront that now houses his Old Townhouse coffee shop was for sale in mid-1975. Chris sold Louie’s in East San Diego and bought the Newport Avenue property for $67,000. At that time it housed Syro’s Coffee Shop, run by Spyro Vartelos, who moved to Garnet Avenue in Pacific Beach after Chris bought out his lease. While readying the Old Townhouse for its first customers, Chris walked up to the Little Chef and asked Markos for a menu, just as he’d done two years before. “I told Markos that we should have the same prices because we’re two Greeks,” Chris recalls. “He looked at me from behind the counter, all wild-eyed, and told me, ‘Get out of here!’”

Markos, a big bulky man with a permanent shadow of a beard darkening his face, says Chris bought the Old Townhouse property without warning Spyro Vartelos and later forced Vartelos out. Makos accuses Chris, and Chris accuses Markos, of declaring a sniper’s war of gossip and criticism that has never stopped. Chris and his newly opened Old Townhouse appeared to be early casualties – business was very bad. He remembers that Markos was selling a sausage, bacon and eggs breakfast across the street at the Little Chef for $1.25 and he remembers a long line of customers waiting outside Markos’s doors. “I couldn’t even sell two cups of coffee, and I had two full-time waitresses here,” Chris recalls. “It was a cold war.” He almost gave up and closed the Old Townhouse, but his wife hit on their salvation: the Spanish omelet. Chris cooked up a pot full of the tomato, onion, and bell pepper combination and started selling Spanish omelets for ninety-nine cents –potatoes and toast included. “That was the beginning of my success,” he declares with a proud smile. “People came from all around – La Jolla, San Diego, Clairemont.”

That was 1976/ The two men have barely talked since, and even their wives, who used to meet quietly without their husbands knowledge, do not see each other now; that means such things as being careful behind whom you line up at the popcorn counter before a Greek movie. Markos says he doesn’t attend San Diego Socker’s games at the stadium anymore because of an altercation he had there with another Greek he says was a friend of Chris’s.

For his part, Chris is convinced that Markos wants to move next door only to put the Old Townhouse out of business. And business there is. Chris parlayed his Spanish omelet success into an all-day diner serving American breakfasts (" 3-egg Spinach and Cheese Omelet/hash Brown/Toast and Jelly — $2.25” reads a hand-drawn window sign), lunches, and a steady supply of Greek gyros sandwiches. All that commotion before the planning board and the coastal commission, all the objections and the lawyers and so on, and Marko’s requirement to provide the fourteen parking places – that wasn’t harassment, Chris insists. “He can move here, but he must follow the rules.”

Markos argues that his move next door to Chris’s Old Townhouse is his only logical choice. He now pays a monthly mortgage on that vacant Newport Avenue property (he evicted the tenant, Vic’s Gymnasium, in November of 1981) along with rent on his current corner location. Moving into the building he owns and selling his current corner restaurant is the only financially sensible option he has. The coastal commission (Markos calls it “the crazy commission”). The fourteen parking spaces? This is stupid and discriminatory.

“All the other restaurants, do they have parking?” he asks rhetorically. “No, so why must I? Why must Chris do everything he can to stop me? This is America, true? If I want to move, I can. If I want to open a new restaurant, I can.”

Markos is upset about the whole affair, but he’s especially upset about the fact that Chris’s attorney, Bob Burns, is also a member of the Ocean Beach Planning Board. Markos says Burns has misrepresented himself before the state coastal commission as being an attorney for the planning board when he was actually working for Chris. Not surprisingly, Burns denies this. Other members of the planning board say Burns has been careful to abstain from votes involving the dispute and has avoided a conflict of interest.

Until recently, Markos was debating whether he too should hire a lawyer; he’d fight the “crazy commission” ruling about the fourteen parking spaces. But he now says he’ll go ahead and tear down the rear of his Newport Avenue property and build a parking lot. Chris vows to hold Markos to the commission’s regulations. But predicts bad times for both himself and Markos should Markos’s project be finished. “People think this area is a paradise for restaurants,” Chris says. “But there is one everywhere, and business now is slow. We both do okay at breakfast, but by 9:30 we don’t have five people eating. Maybe Markos can take five dollars from me, but he’ll go bankrupt doing it. And I’m so stubborn, I’ll stay here till I die. Markos could build one hundred restaurants and I won’t move.”

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