Up until 1970, San Diego had a thriving fishing industry; it was San Diego’s third-largest industry, behind the Navy and aerospace. It employed some 40,000 San Diegans in catching, canning and marketing the product. Two of the three big tuna canning companies were based here, and the waterfront was home to four canneries and scores of fishing boats. Bumble Bee™ cannery was running 24/7 canning tuna and San Diego’s Embarcadero and Mission Bay Seaforth Landing catered to San Diegans craving for seafood.
In La Jolla, Anthony’s Fish Grotto was the only restaurant that hosted a full menu of seafood — there wasn’t a day where one would cruise by and see a crowd standing outside waiting to dine on Mama Ghio’s ‘secret’ recipes like the clam chowder soup or batter for the fish and chips. Sure, there were restaurants that served seafood, but the menu was limited to only a few seafood items and only served on porcelain plates and steel flatware. For any type of paper-plates, plastic forks, dining or take-out, one had to go the Embarcadero or Seaforth.
A few years before, La Jolla local Tommy Doyle had an idea that would revolutionize the entire fishing/market business in San Diego but it came with a devastating heartbreaking loss.
THE SECRET FISHING SPOT
Tommy Doyle grew up in La Jolla. His parents (William Doyle and Anita Figueredo) were both doctors and devoted Catholics; all the kids went to Stella Maris Catholic school until ninth grade. Anita Figueredo was Costa Rican and the first female surgeon in San Diego County when she moved to La Jolla in 1947. She was also the first female surgeon in the country to specialize in cancer treatments, never realizing her skills would be brought to the ultimate emotional and heartbreaking test. Their family was large with nine children (Billy, Charlie, Tommy, Anita, Teresa, Ricky, Robert, John and Sarita), so if you grew up in La Jolla, chances are you knew or went to school with one of the Doyles.
Tommy’s love of the ocean began at a very young age. Their house was located on Coast Boulevard and it was common for him to walk across the street and cast a line out or dive. Tommy looked up to his oldest brother, Billy, who became in away, his mentor. Billy, (Class of ‘61) after graduation, learned to fish from Steve Loomis, who became a well-known charter boat skipper. When Billy received his commercial fishing license, Tommy would go fishing with him. Tommy and Billy developed a strong bond. The long hours on the ocean can do that. And, Billy introduced him to many of the local fishermen, such as legendary Donny Tomlinson.
One day, after a hard day of pulling traps off of La Jolla, a sunbaked and sweaty Tommy turned to Billy, saying “You know what this town needs?”
Billy looked at him funny and replied, “Okay, what?”
“We need a local fish market and cafe.”
Billy sort of chuckled, not thinking much of it, but when he asked Tommy in a bit of a sarcastic tone, “Where?”
Tommy came back with, “Bird Rock.”
Billy remarked, he might consider a different location.
Billy had told his brother many times, Bird Rock had urban folklore (ever since the end of the World War II) that not a single business did well there. In fact, all throughout the ‘50s – ‘60s, there was a legend that was pretty much talked about among the locals, Bird Rock was on some sort of sacred Indian burial grounds of La Jolla Indians. The Spirits were not happy with the White Man settling on their land. La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club is neighbor to a major archeological site dating back to 7500, three thousand years ago. Even to this day, contractors are still finding fragments of Indian artifacts when grading and doing foundation work.
Tommy shrugged. His brother’s campfire tale was just another bit of playful teasing that older kids made to younger kids.
Once Tommy learned the basics of fishing from his brother, he quickly moved on.
When Tommy graduated from La Jolla High in 1966, he went to San Diego State where he majored in Business. When it came time for his thesis, he had to make a business proposal. You guessed it! He wrote one about a seafood cafe and market, and received a passing grade. During college, he moved to Bird Rock and bought a 18’ deep blue Woodward Skiff. Woodward Skiffs, at the time, were the preferred boat for locals with its wide beam and foam bottom and are still considered the best skiff ever built.
Tommy obtained his commercial fishing license and started fishing lobster with people such as Doug Moranville, where he was able to know a lot more of the local fishermen. It was great fishing back then. It was the good life being out on the water in God’s World.
THE ART OF CATCHING FISH, THERE IS LUCK
By now, Tommy had proven he was a good fisherman, but in his mind, he needed more experience on the business end. Why not? In business, it’s one thing to catch and it’s another to sell. Tommy also knew that by taking out the middle man, he would have an edge on any competition. So, how was that going to happen? Easy, learn from the middle man!
At the time, San Diego only had three fishing wholesale outlets, Peoples Fish, Chesapeake Fish Company and San Diego Fish Company. It took several trips to convince the manager of Chesapeake to hire him where he met and became friends with a Japanese man, Gilbert Furuya. Gilbert was hardworking and honest, and when he saw this energizing kid who was eager to learn, he took Tommy under his wing. It wasn’t long before they became good friends and even more so when there was a La Jolla connection.
Gilbert was also a master of cooling systems, something that was critical on keeping fish as fresh as possible, and as luck had it, Tommy just about had a heart attack when Gilbert told him who his installer was.
It was this crazy La Jollan, Steve Manns, whose dad, Walter, was in the refrigeration business and serviced just about all the coolers in La Jolla’s restaurants. Both Walter and Gilbert had designed a new cooling system that gave a regulated flow of ice-cold air that prevented freezing, a major problem as fish has a more fragile cellular structure than meat. Freezer burns decay (the fishy smell) the fish a lot faster than meat and were quite common with poor coolant systems.
One day, Tommy and Gilbert were talking when Tommy told him about his idea of a Seafood Cafe and Market. Gilbert’s eyes lit up faster than a marlin strike. They talked and agreed; since it was Tommy’s idea, he would run and operate a place in La Jolla and Gilbert would run and operate a place in Chula Vista and Tommy would get a piece of the catch (action) from Gilbert.
The next thing they knew they were signing a partnership agreement for the new company, Ocean Fresh Seafood Cafe and Market.
Tommy Alan Doyle was only 22 years old when his vision started to become reality.
LOCAL FISHING GROUNDS
Before 1970, Bird Rock was a small community on the far south end of La Jolla, California, the gateway to Pacific Beach and beyond.
It was not much more than a few gas stations, burger/fountain joints, a couple of steak restaurants like Bully’s and Rudy’s Hearthside, and a few beach hotels. When the Jack in the Box opened in the mid-60s, followed by a Kentucky Fried Chicken, the sleepy beach community started to grow. It was also a town that had many infamous debaucherous bars like the Red Mountain Inn, Sip and Surf and White Whale. Bird Rock had always been one of those Wild West (or Barbary Coast) communities set aside from the rest.
Tommy did not care about superstition or any of the BS rumors about Bird Rock. He knew when he saw the “For Lease” sign plastered on one of the plate-glass windows of the KFC, this is where the new seafood cafe was going to be.
His brother, Billy Doyle, had just returned from a tour in Vietnam, and they both sat down and started talking. Tommy outlined his plan and really wanted Billy’s involvement, but Billy had other plans. He wanted to get into construction and was looking into buying a small welding shop on Cass Street. Tommy had always looked up to his brother, and was a bit disappointed, but he understood. In a way, this may have been Billy’s way of pushing Tommy out into the real ocean or the cliché, sink or swim.
Yes, Tommy was trolling, saw a fish jump, threw his line in, and got a few strikes. Now, it was just a matter of changing bait when Billy said, thanks, but no thanks. Tommy put together a very extensive business plan and went to see his parents. He walked out with a smile on his face.
The KFC was on the northwest corner on Midway Street and La Jolla Boulevard between a Taxidermy place on the south and small business almost attached to KFC on the north. Before KFC had served chicken, it was a nursery (then subdivided into three plots) that sold plants and flowers on a fairly nice chunk of land for that area with a big parking lot that KFC assumed would be filled daily.
Tommy never cared that the corner (5509 La Jolla Boulevard) had two previous businesses that failed, first the nursery and then the KFC, which became the first KFC franchise that folded. Tommy should have called it quits, not believing his brother’s folklore curse, but he was determined and had ambition.
When a lease agreement was signed, construction began. The old KFC proved better than Tommy realized. It was a natural. The small dining (barely used linoleum), flooring area was perfect with a long counter with a pass-through that now was being prepared to pass seafood instead of chicken. But the big catch of the day was going to be the future fish cutting area. It was already set up with a concrete slab, drains, and the skeleton remains of the walk-in refrigerator that KFC had left behind and a few stainless steel tables that were perfect to slice, dice, and filet fish.
Gilbert called Walter Manns who set up the advanced cooling system under Gilbert’s design skills. A wide door in the back allowed a steady stream of pickup trucks towing skiffs filled with fresh local seafood that would start at 5 a.m. And with this cooling system, it would keep fish fresher longer.
Tommy was a great guy everybody liked, but if there was any flaw in Tommy’s character, it was that he had a hard time giving credit to those that helped him. This, later on, would cause animosity to those that admired and respected him. And, that is what Tommy did to Gilbert Furuya, who was a valuable asset in making Ocean Fresh a finely tuned and very productive fish market. After Gilbert set up Ocean Fresh, he started the second one in Chula Vista.
One day, Gilbert called Tommy saying, “Yea, come on down and check out the spot.”
Tommy declined and flatly told him, “I hate going to Chula Vista.”
Gilbert was stunned. From that point on, everything Tommy had learned from the guru of fish marketing was dead bait and he got back to his only concern of putting on the final touches of his business.
After a fresh coat of white paint on both exterior and interior, some blue designs, and photos of fish, Tommy put up a large changeable menu that hung high on the wall in back of the counter, the kind you would see in a fast-food Mexican joint. The place was coming together. It was simple, clean, and workable.
Billy Doyle made the chairs. Back in those days, kegs of nails came in real wooden kegs. Billy turned them upside down, put a deep maroon Naugahyde cover over some foam padding and secured it with brass brads and stained the kegs. Tommy loved the funky look. Later on, the chairs were replaced with captain’s chairs, something that lasted longer as we will learn later. Kitchen equipment was installed.
When the Ocean Fresh sign was being painted, Tommy watched every paint stoke from across the street. His dream was becoming a reality.
Like family, Tommy believed close, loyal friends were just as important. So, with just a handful of locals, (people he knew that loved to catch and eat fish, whether it was diving or rodding) he selected some very close ones he could trust — Keith Liberty, Peter Berkstrom, Jim Downie and Danny Samons who also helped in the construction. Keith, Peter, and Jim were the fish cutters. Danny was the cook and Tommy was behind the counter. Tommy gave Jim and Keith his word that they would get a piece of the catch. If there was ever a bond on friendship, respect and business, this was it … so everyone thought.
A week before opening, suppliers were delivering, and arrangements were made with Tommy’s fishing friends to deliver fresh locally caught fish.
He had put together the best of the best local fishing fleet. Donny Tomlinson, ‘Tuna Bob’ Culberson, Randy Miller, Ricky “Whale” Dameron, Tony Schwarts, Bob Buelman, Brud McGowan, Dave Calloway, ‘Whitey’ John Renderneck, Mingo Ghio, Richard “The Monk,” Tony Jackalong, Tommy Lewis, and even Robert Waldon from Cardiff to name a few.
THE SECRET FISHING SPOT WAS ABOUT TO BE DISCOVERED
Those that knew Tommy, understood he was a very personal guy with a big personality. He had a sense of humor, very friendly, but had an ego and was known for his temper and could be quite anal-retentive. Everything has to be perfect and it clearly showed on the Grand Opening.
For weeks, all traffic coming North into La Jolla took notice, the changing of KFC colors to one of pure white set up the buoy alert that something cool was going to open.
Several hours before their 11:30 a.m. Grand Opening, Tommy was a nervous wreck.
As one put it, “All Tommy could do was walk around, making sure the chairs were perfectly spaced” around the resin top wood tables. “He must’ve moved the ice around the display case twenty times.” Adding with a chuckle, “He kept looking up at the menu” that flaunted a few seafood sandwiches, a couple of chowder soups, and a fish and chips plate served with French fries along with two small paper cups, one ketchup and one tartar sauce.
Then, he wondered if the prices for the Abalone Sandwich ($2.75) or the fish and chips that spilled over the paper plate for $1.50 were too expensive? Should the twenty-five-cent side order of coleslaw be included with the meal?
At 11:30 sharp, Tommy walked to the door, unlocked it to an already anxious and salivating crowd.
Ocean Fresh Seafood Cafe and Market opened on a shoe-string budget on a cloudy June gloom day, 1970.
Nobody remembers the first bite, even if was more like the sudden strike of a ninety-pound wahoo smoking a reel. Customers started piling in faster than sportfishing boats zeroing in on a yellowtail bite.
A simple, fried, cheap, limited menu drew the seafood crowd from miles away. People were known to drive fifty plus miles just to get the abalone sandwich. Locals dined on Catch of the Day Specials. The hot seller, white sea bass, went for around $2 a pound.
On Sundays, his mother, Dr. Figueredo Doyle, could be seen in the back room cutting fish or serving a customer.
One time, Tommy had a fish and chips eating contest. As local Bird Rock kid, Kip Ives described it, “The place was packed, standing room only. In the center was a table surrounded by large, big-bellied men, except for two tall and thin brothers, Jim and Dennis Downie. Never would I have thought they had a chance as the cook, Danny Samons, speed loaded fish and chips through the pass-through. One by one, the big boys had enough. Eber Linder was one of them who suddenly got up and ran to the doors, puked his guts out in front of a cheering and laughing crowd, but the Downies hung in there. The next thing one knew, it was a battle between brothers, and the younger brother, Dennis Downie, won the contest.”
There was an older couple who would drive from Escondido every Saturday morning. He would order the abalone sandwich and her, the fish and chips. Afterwards, they would buy a few pounds of the Catch of the Day Special for their Sunday meal.
Remember those nails kegs that Billy made into fundy chairs? Well, they did not work well because they were too flimsy and started to splinter being manhandled around by customers so they had to be replaced with the more heavy-duty captain’s chairs.
Unlike many owners, Tommy was hands-on, which helped gain the respect of the staff. It was nothing for him to jump to unloading and cutting fish or working behind the counter, etc. One employee was surprised when the toilet overflowed. Tommy did not call a plumber — he just jumped in and got his hands dirty fixing it himself — even the employees got involved. It was nothing seeing Keith or Jim in rubber boots and aprons, covered in fish guts and blood, taking orders or weighing out the daily special of white sea bass for some customer’s dinner.
One thing about fresh fish, it doesn’t smell fishy. Ocean Fresh always had this clean smell of saltwater mixed with the sizzling sounds of frying or grilled seafood.
When you saw members of the Anthony’s Ghio family standing in line, you knew the place was good.
If you ordered “special” in front of any sandwich, the cook would put a raw oyster in it. Needless to say, it got a lot of laughs at a gagging unsuspecting eater.
Yes, Tommy Doyle’s idea hit the biggest fish frenzy in both customer satisfaction and in fishing new, uncharted waters. It did not go unnoticed. He was the talk of the town in the fishing industry.
He had hit on a market that changed the way San Diego sold seafood.
IF YOU ARE CATCHING FISH ON CERTAIN BAIT OR JIGs, WHY CHANGE?
One thing about catching fish, the excitement is addictive, you want more. After about six months, Tommy was still not satisfied. His passion started to get to him while looking at the long lines of customers waiting to eat or getting a few pounds of local swordfish for that night’s meal. Tommy wanted something more than just a seafood take-out.
The place was making money, lots of it. He had cut off the middle man by doing it all. He had a steady stream of fresh fish (caught just hours before) that went right from the boat to the cutting table and into the mouths of customers.
It doesn’t get much fresher and more exciting than that. Common remarks were, “Gee, never tasted fish so good.”
By this time, his relationship with the man who taught him the fish market business was over. Gilbert had vanished. Gilbert was on his own. Tommy didn’t seem to care as long as Gilbert was honoring their agreement, sending a percentage of the sales once a month from the Chula Vista Ocean Fresh. It was all good.
Yes, business was excellent! But why if it’s not broken, why fix it? Tommy had always wanted to expand it into something more in line with Anthony’s Star of the Sea Room, but without the required ties — a sit down with porcelain plates with the Ocean Fresh logo on them and stainless steel flatware —wine glasses and customers that came in with suits instead of flip flops and t-shirts.
Oh yeah, and very pretty, young hostesses that took reservations and escorted customers to their tables. But it had to be different, it had to have the sparkling tropical colors of the ocean, the culture of fishing and it had to be rich-looking that would attract the high dollar of whale spenders and still keep the charm of a local place.
But, before moving forward, he needed to somehow get out of his lease. Why spend all this money and not own it? All this time all Tommy could do was watch what was a taxidermy business, change to a small flower shop lot on the south corner that sometimes filled with his customer’s parking— and on the north end, a small building that would be good for storage or maybe a liquor room. So, for the second time in less than a year, he put together a business plan and approached his parents with the idea, instead of leasing the property, they would buy it. Tommy would then lease the building from his parents. His parents agreed, an offer was made, and shortly later, the property was put into escrow.
Tommy hired an architect and then a contractor. Plans were being drawn and one of the first things he did was to make sure the contractor would hire locals. A timeframe was set for three months and during this time the cafe had to be open, and on the southeast corner, the flower shop would be remodeled into a separate seafood market and built first that would also match the elegance of any five-star restaurant.
The design was gorgeous. Tropical theme. Soft carpets, handmade mahogany inlaid tops, sculptured wood walls and partitions, captain’s chairs and indirect lighting were just some of the five-star features. Even the back door had a custom made door with a jumping marlin. But the prime addition was the upstairs office accessible by an outdoor stairway that opened to a small wood deck that overlooked the parking, and a million-dollar view of the ocean. Inside rich wood paneling, full bathroom with shower, walls that flaunted ocean decor and photos of fishermen that blended in with white smooth stucco and cobalt blue tile and sitting in the middle, a huge teak office desk. It was the envy of any attorney.
Later on, the office quickly become the local clubhouse for friends and dubbed DOD, Den of Debauchery. We will leave it at that, but think, casting couch.
Unknown at the time, the first red tide was slowing moving in and it started with his two loyal employees, Keith and Jimmy.
When Keith and Jimmy saw the plans, they both were shocked. The large and very open fish cutting room had been cut by almost two-thirds and it was underneath the second-story office. They knew expansion would require more (a lot more), fish cutting, and with the smaller room, it would be like working in a sardine can. Tommy avoided the subject and then the cutters wondered about their ‘piece of the catch’ that Tommy had promised them.
Tommy assured them that everything would be great. He was going to finance the remodel from sales and the new restaurant and stand-alone market would get more business. He just needed more time. Keith and Jim felt good that Tommy would make good on his word, not knowing that nature had a storm brewing in Tommy’s direction.
Unlike the first remodel, which took only a day to get approved plans, the new California Coastal Commission (created in 1972) took time, almost a year in government Catch-22 mayhem, finally in the beginning of 1974, about four years after the June 1970 cafe/market opening construction started. It had a schedule of around three to four months. The remodel of the Flower Shop into the fish market went fairly fast and within a couple of months, it was open for business. But the eatery was a different story.
The second story office and the new cutting room was the first to be built. During this time, it became a nightmare to keep the cafe open. Between the market, cafe, construction workers, deliveries in cafe products and seafood, the parking lot became a seal bomb of explosive chaos, not counting the Wolf whistles to women from construction workers.
As one person said, “Organized Chaos, one day, Disorganized Chaos, the next.”
Problems started off on Day One and Tommy was mostly to blame. It was his boat, and he had every right to bark commands. He was there every day pointing out what he did and did not like. There were a lot of quality craftsmen, and the project started to resemble the fine craftsmanship of a Rolex watch. Everything had to be perfect, even the framing. There was no room for error when Tommy started measuring the distance between studs to make sure they were precisely sixteen inches on center. If it was off one-eighth of an inch, someone got yelled at. But, he was also cool buying beers for the workers at the end of or during the day and had no problem helping unload a truck loaded with tile.
Construction workers loved it. And why not, it was a fun place to work with endless smoke and beer breaks. If there was a perfect example of city workers, this was it. What was supposed to be three months’ completion became six, eight, ten months.
One of the biggest delays was getting a liquor license, which they ended up buying for a price Tommy was not happy about.
The original budget swelled to two, three, four times the cost.
Finally, almost a year later, the place opened up in December 1975 with a Grand Opening that packed the place in eye-expanding impressiveness.
ALL FISHERMEN KNOW — A GOOD DAY CAN TURN BAD — NATURE IS UNPREDICTABLE
Tommy had hit the motherload of success for the second time; the place was packed. If you did not have a reservation, expect an hour wait. Fantastic reviews came from all over the country. The parking lot quickly changed from beat-up VWs with surf rakes to BMWs and Mercedes.
Rarely seen were the customers with flip flops but now they were businessmen and women who used the place for meetings during lunch. Even a little-known actor at the time, Arnold Schwarzenegger, frequented the place.
Their menu was a bit expensive, but the food was to die for and large portions including a new fish item, Selachimorpha or Gray Fish.
But with all the success, multiple fishing lines were cast at their fish frenzy trying to get a fair share of the catch. A new seafood restaurant, Sea Thief, opened up across from Bully’s. Then, Bully’s added seafood plates to their menu, including one of Tommy’s specialties, Alaska King Crab. Even Anthony’s took notice and now had a take-out at their Embarcadero location. The seafood franchise Long John Silver opened up in Pacific Beach. Even if Jack in the Box and McDonalds fish sandwiches were ten years earlier, it was only served on Fridays for Catholics, especially during lent, started advertising their fish sandwiches for all days.
Then the first big storm, the environmentalist. Ocean Fresh’s signature Abalone plate was removed from the menu when Abalone became an endangered species. Fishing reserves were designated, and limits on fish hurt the commercial fishermen. Tommy found himself in an awkward position. It was like the pump for the live bait tank was shut off — he now had to buy that ‘dreaded’ frozen seafood to keep up with the demand of his customers.
Another storm came seven months later in July 1976, when some plastic surgeon, Dr. C. Jay Hoyt, from La Mesa, of all places, (who for some unknown reason) was a food critic for a major newspaper.
In his column, Dining Out, he wrote of Ocean Fresh, “The fish is not fresh and under prepared … and no need to go there.”
And boy, did Dr. Bill Doyle fly off the bridge, writing back in a scalding defense, coming close to accusing Dr. Hoyt of being a quack.
It made people wonder if Hoyt was getting paid by one of Ocean Fresh’s competitors.
Still, with all of this, Ocean Fresh managed the storms. Tommy became more controlling, and he pretty much lived in the office making sure he could keep an eye on things, day and night. His office had a change of clothes there too. During the day, it was casual beachwear, then a quick shower, and at night, slacks and collared shirt. His home in Bird Rock started collecting dust. He’d walk around greeting and talking to customers like any good owner would do. Tommy loved the attention.
Billy’s wife, at the time, started to drop off her special Carrot Cake that was an instant hit. Later on, it was dubbed Jimmie Doyle’s Famous Carrot Cake. Some say, it started the carrot cake craze.
And women, boy, were the women scoping down on Tommy. It was common to see him flirting at the bar with an endless stream of beach babes competing for his attention. Tommy had it all, handsome, popular eatery, women, and money — it was all good. The fruits of his catch were really paying off.
Unfortunately, he never looked out to the morning horizon, to what every fisherman knows, Red Skies in the Morning, Sailor take Warning, the Perfect Storm was building. It all started with a country that we learned about in Middle School Geography class.
THE RED TIDE OF PERU
It was the mid-1970s, times were changing. It was the end of the hippies, Make Love, Not War generation. The Vietnam war had ended. Maynard’s 25-cent Spaghetti dinners were no more. The debauchery bars, Red Mountain Inn and White Whale closed and Hungry Horse changed names to Sip and Surf. Then a new era of music, the Disco crap that followed with something more infiltrating and it started way down South of the Equator with a little-known man at the time, Pablo Escobar.
The first sign was when several Peruvians took up residence near La Jolla High School. One of the residents’ family was one of the largest Coke Cola distributor/importer/exporter in Peru. With that said, small amounts of Peruvian Marching Powder, (aka, Cocaine) started making its rounds in the Beach area. With the opening of a Peruvian Restaurant just a block north from Ocean Fresh, the cultural drug of pot was slowing being replaced with a newfound high that attracted the rich and famous. Downtown La Jolla’s Prospect Street restaurant row suddenly became a dealer’s paradise to unload their much-in-demand product to all-night (and into the day) partiers.
Bird Rock sat right in the middle of the party scene of La Jolla’s downtown, Pacific Beach’s boardwalk and Garnet Avenue, which had several nightclubs that danced to the beat of the Saturday Night Fever disco crowd until 2 a.m. Ocean Fresh and Bully’s were in a unique position because they were off the beaten path or pit stop for partiers traveling back and forth. Drinks and great food became the rendezvous for these dealers and pushers who had regarded these two places as a No Man’s Land or Safe Zone. They could conduct business as any legit professional would do except Ocean Fresh had the parking and rich environment and Bully’s, with the darker atmosphere, (and wherein the back of the men’s bathroom paper dispenser) was the drop-off point for their product.
Sales of Crown Royal with (the real) coke tripled overnight at Ocean Fresh and Bully’s. It was the favorite cocktail of these South Americans.
At both Bully’s and Ocean Fresh, the staff loved them. Many were great tippers and they spent a ton of (drug)money. It was nothing for a group of four to walk in, order a few $120 bottles of Dom Perignon, Oysters Rockefeller on the half-shell and several jumbo shrimp cocktails for starters and end up with a thousand-dollar bill that was paid in cash. Just about every $100 bill tip was caked in white powder and was quite common. A month’s rent for some.
One person witnessed the casual exchange of two identical suitcases being swapped at the bar. Oh my!
But no one cared. As long as it did not disrupt the business or cause customer problems, it was all good.
But underneath this façade of success, something was beginning to bother Tommy physically. He started to get these bizarre, jigging headaches.
THE PERFECT STORM WAS BREWING
As the success and competition grew more and more, the headaches increased. Tommy, for a long time, chalked it up to the stress of running a business. But others that knew him suspected something was wrong, particularly Keith and Jimmy. Since the fish cutting room was below the office, Tommy would always stop by, shoot the shit, but not anymore. At first, Jim and Keith thought Tommy had more on his mind. But as the weeks and months went by, they started feeling like they were shoved in the basement, and with that said, their impatience grew for Tommy’s promise of the piece of the catch. They thought he was avoiding them.
The claustrophobic working area wasn’t making it better. Jimmy said, “With the room piled high in crates of seafood, you couldn’t cut fish without banging another’s elbows.”
Little did they know, Tommy had no control of what his brain was doing at this time, let alone probably remember what he had promised as we will learn later.
About this time, Tommy’s brother, Charlie, was discharged from the Air Force. Charlie wanted to open up a photo processing place where amateur photographers could rent Dark Room space to develop their photos.
Tommy let him have the space attached to the restaurant. Charlie named it Safe Light. Then Tommy hired his sister, Teresa, to do waitressing. And, of course, Billy was dropping in almost daily from his welding business about a mile south on Cass Street.
In a way, perhaps, Tommy was surrounding himself with family. It was almost like he was expecting something to happen, especially when suddenly he married a girl from Los Angeles that he met in the bar, which took his family and friends by surprise.
But his headaches kept getting worse and closer together. At times, they were worse than migraines. He started taking prescription pain pills that did very little. Strangely, he never went to his doctor parents. Finally, one day he thought he had better see a doctor.
Sitting in the doctor’s office, the worse happened — he had a full-blown seizure and fell to the floor. Doctors and nurses rushed to his aid.
THE DEADLY CATCH
The diagnosis was not pretty, in fact, it was deadly. Tommy had brain cancer; a tumor the size of a golf ball was lodged in his brain. If nothing was done, he only had a few months to live. His only chance was to remove it and try this experimental radiation treatments. The family was devastated. Word got out, and as this cold fog of sadness buried Ocean Fresh, Tommy signed the medical consent documents for this new treatment process.
He had the operation to remove the tumor. Then within a few weeks, radiation started. It was nothing like Tommy expected, it kicked his ass so badly that afterwards he had to spend two to three days in the hospital just to recoup. His hair fell out. He got very weak and his face started to look sunken. Long-time friend, Bill Decker, used to bring him pot to help ease the side effects. It helped, but not as Tommy would have liked. He started losing weight.
Meanwhile, as Tommy was fighting for his life, there was a restaurant to run. Since Charlie was a regular fixture, the Doyles assumed he could oversee the daily tasks of general management. Charlie was a great guy, low key, but nowhere near the personality of his brother, let alone he did not have any type of managerial experience, but the Doyles knew that.
The Doyles also knew of Russell Ingledew. Russell had gone to Stella Maris with a few of their children and had also grown up in Bird Rock. After an interview with Russell, the doctors hired him on the spot. He had been working for the Chart House restaurant chain on their management team for years putting together Chart Houses in the Los Angeles area. Russell was the perfect person to fill Tommy’s boots.
Unfortunately, Russell was not prepared to run an eatery whose devotion was to Tommy. Some of the employees walked around like zombies, deeply saddened by Tommy’s condition and the animosity that some had with a new Captain running the ship. Problems started right on the dock. Russell had a hard time with discipline and was amazed. It seemed as if everyone had a key to the storage and liquor room. He caught people stealing, and one time, he caught a guy walking out with a twenty-pound dorado when the fish room was left unlocked. It was frustrating! After about six months, he gave his resignation to the Doyles and went back to work with Chart House.
Over the next few years, many managers were hired. then fired or quit.
Timing is everything they say, now add bad timing and fish tales and we have a runaway of seamen scuttlebutt. When the Peruvian Restaurant down the street was busted by the Health Department for cookie cutting Manta Ray fins, and serving them as high-dollar gourmet sea scallops, it opened up a can of worms of fraud, which brought in the police.
There was talk, the police had found all sorts of information on what they ‘suspected’ was laundering of the cocaine money and dealing. Many names came up, including Bully’s, Ocean Fresh and other establishments in this barbary coast beach community of Bird Rock.
Locals were casting fish tales of vans parked across the streets and non-locals eating or drinking at the bar asking many questions like, who’s the ‘new’ owner, manager, etc. One local fisherman kept warning friends after he dropped off his catch, he was always followed by a dark and/or olive-colored sedan.
So when rumors started to spread that Bully’s and Ocean Fresh were under surveillance, customers stopped going to both places, which included the heavy spending whales and revenue dropped like an anchor at both eateries. The only people that patronized them were loyal locals.
As one former customer said, “I used to hang at Ocean Fresh, but moved out of La Jolla several years before. When going into La Jolla for business, I thought I would stop by for Happy Hour afterwards which was normally packed hoping to see a few friends. I was surprised the parking lot was empty. When I walked in, it was a ghost town. A group of waitresses sat around one of the dining rooms tables smoking and yakking and the bar was empty.”
During this time, Tommy’s condition seemed to be getting better, but it was still a roller-coaster ride of emotions when another suspected tumor was found. He went in for another operation, and as if he was now being blessed, it wasn’t a tumor, but only a cyst. He continued with the ongoing bombardment of radiation. By now, the silent cancer had its deadly foothold, Tommy was being filleted down to a skeleton, his brain was going through a lobotomy. Unlike chemo, where over time cells rejuvenate, radiation destroys cells with little or no hope for rejuvenation, the brain can start to progress backwards.
Billy explained it well. At times, Tommy acted like a playful child, funny, cute and entertaining. Then, at times, it deeply saddened him seeing his brother looking pale, fragile and at times not knowing who Billy or any other family was as his condition worsened.
THE FINAL BLOW TO DAVY JONES LOCKER
By now, Ocean Fresh was slowing sinking, it was becoming nothing but a leaking boat that the Doyles were constantly dumping money into and they hoped it would weather the storm(s).
Then in November of 1980, the final blow happened when a dishwasher came down with Hepatitis along with several other eateries, like Gullivers in Mission Valley. The press did a shark frenzy on it – they totally avoided the stern of the ship; Anthony’s also had a Hepatitis outbreak. All the establishments were shut down, but you would have never known it reading the San Diego Union or any other newspaper in San Diego.
Gullivers and Ocean Fresh were front-page news.
Ocean Fresh, Gulliveres and others had a sign posted on the front door regarding the Health Department closure and Anthony’s had put up a barricade sign, Closed for Maintenance’ just underneath their entry overhang 20 feet from the front door, that prevented customers seeing the warning notice on the front door about the Health Department closer.
It was all political and pretty obvious of why. It was the double hook up of political BS, sever the head of a competitor’s restaurant and put a lid on the ‘suspected’ malicious activity.
In late November 1980, in a cancer-ridden and very weak pale body, Tommy had an interview with the newspaper that had taken shark bites of Ocean Fresh. He assured the cafe was safe but it did little to gain the public trust.
When Ocean Fresh reopened weeks later, the Doyles learned some of the employees were taking immunoglobulin, a prevention drug for Hepatitis and that was the last flicker of the candle. Deeply in debt, they had no choice but to shut down the iconic market and eatery in late 1981, just 11 years after the opening in 1970.
For a year, the place sat vacant, boarded up, vandals broke in stealing just about anything of value, and then the homeless made it their home. The Doyles ended up paying all the past bills that the eatery had accumulated. They wanted to sell, but the country was in a recession, so they waited until the time was right.
Finally, the Doyles sold the property on the Northeast corner of Midway Street and La Jolla Boulevard to an Investment Property Group. After a remodel (into a classic Mexican joint) they tried to capitalize on the clientele of Ocean Fresh with seafood entrees; they too closed about two years later.
Tommy Alan Doyle died at the young age of 37, surrounded by family members in May of 1985.
A high-mass Catholic service was held that drew hundreds of mourners.
After a few days, a private ceremony with family and a few close friends was held at the beach across from the Doyles. They stood huddled together, hugging and drenched in tears as they watched Don Pajak place the ashes on a surfboard, paddle out and spread them over what Tommy’s life was all about, the ocean.
THE CURSE OR JUST BAD TIMING OR LUCK?
Since the close of Ocean Fresh, the place has had no less than ten businesses that have tried to be successful at 5509 La Jolla Blvd — as of this writing, it is a Surf Shop. Call it anything you like, Bad Timing or Luck — a victim of the environmental, political and cultural times of drugs — Folklore, Indian Curse, Bird Rock’s own Bermuda Triangle, or some Alien Encounter with ET at the helm. Whichever poison you want to pick, it’s intriguing and is still talked about even today. The fact remains since the 1940s, few businesses have survived for more than ten years in Bird Rock. Ocean Fresh lasted eleven years.
Even in the last ten years, there hasn’t been less than twenty-five businesses that have lasted, long forgotten in memory or name, except one, which is still being talked about today, especially on Social Media platforms like Facebook, and that one was fifty years ago.
Ocean Fresh is that one that made such a major impact on the local community and fishing industry assuring future generations the legacy of Tommy Doyle will live forever.
For more photos Visit Ocean Fresh Gallery
Albert gives his Special Thanks to, Billy Doyle, Teresa Doyle, Denny Moore, Bill Decker, Kip Ives, Doug Morinville, Russell Ingledew, Brian Munoz, Jimmy Downie and Keith Liberty. And extra thanks to C.N. who made sure Albert did not use (to much) profanity and spanked him when he got out of line with the verbiage, which was a major chore.