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Cappy’s Café: Four Decades as a Local Landmark

The only thing permanent in the restaurant industry is change.

Trends come and go, as do restaurants. Surviving more than 20 years is impressive. Double that and, well, not many eateries endure that long.

Cappy’s Café on Coast Highway in Newport Beach is a longtime local landmark—not far from the Huntington Beach city line—that’s been serving bountiful breakfasts and luscious lunches for 40 years.

Owners Sheryl and Tim Campbell officially commemorated Cappy’s 40th year of serving the community with a ribbon-cutting event in October.

The Campbells know their restaurant is essentially a time machine for so many loyal fans, who bring their kids and grandkids to Cappy’s to keep the dining legacy alive.

Hawaii Background

Tim Campbell said he and his wife purchased Cappy’s four years ago, after spending time in Hawaii running a wholesale seafood distributor business as well as a seafood restaurant.

“I was in the commercial real estate industry for about 30 years,” said Tim Campbell. “In 2015, the company I worked for sold out. At that time my uncle was about ready to sell his wholesale seafood distribution company in Hawaii that he had owned for 36 years. I called him and said, ‘I know you’re selling, but I can help you take it to the next level.’”

Tim and Sheryl moved to Honolulu and ran Fresh Island Fish, the largest wholesale seafood distributer in the state.

“I had never run a company like that, but it was the best thing I ever did,” he said.

“We had about 125 employees, did about $25 million in revenue annually, and we had a restaurant called Uncle’s Fish Market and Grill next to our main building. We flew fresh fish to all the islands, and distributed to hotels, restaurants, grocery stores and food trucks.”

The company had one fishing boat but sold it to a local fish business that had 25 boats—nearly half the fleet in Hawaii, he said. Eventually they struck a deal with the fishing boat owner and sold Fresh Island Fish to his company.

Tim Campbell and his uncle then opened a restaurant near Pearl Harbor, which was voted second best seafood restaurant in Hawaii.

“It was a very local place, about 80% of customers were from the community, the other 20% were tourists. It’s the kind of business model you want because tourists are great but they’re here once a year.”

Mainland Move

Despite the successes, the couple were ready to move back to the mainland. They settled in Corona del Mar.

“At that time, I really had the restaurant love,” Tim Campbell said. “I was more the CEO, which taught me a lot. I told my wife I really love this business and want to buy a restaurant, but I have a number of criteria.”

Among the criteria: close to where they lived, something preferably on Coast Highway, something that was profitable and not a turnaround restaurant.

“I wanted something that has a great reputation, and I wanted stability of the staff,” Tim Campbell stated. “I wanted to know that the back of house and front of house staff has been there for a long period of time. I also wanted a long-term lease, and I wanted a lot of parking.”

He talked with brokers who showed him restaurant options, but nothing Tim found suitable until one broker said he knew of a potential spot that was not on the market. He contacted the owner to see if he was interested in selling.

That owner was David Dukes. The restaurant was Cappy’s Cafe.

“He said he was interested but wanted to meet me to make sure I had experience in what I was doing, and had the vision he had as far as taking Cappy’s to the next level,” Tim Campbell said.

“I met with him, struck a deal, and closed in four months.”

Enhancements, Refreshing

The Campbells wanted to see how they could enhance the experience for their guests.

They had Cappy’s repainted, and they refreshed the menu, which Tim Campbell said was tired—not the food necessarily, but the physical menu needed updating. They took photos of the popular menu items and added them to the menu. They removed slow selling dishes and added new ones. He brought in soundproofing to reduce the noise.

They estimate that Cappy’s serves around 120,000 customers every year, many of whom are frequent longtime patrons who bring their children or grandchildren in to get a taste of Cappy’s food and ambiance.

“Our executive chef has been here 25 years, the busboy has been here 22 years, one server, Lindsay, has been here 12 years,” he said.

“A lot of people have been here a long time. Having that stability, the food is consistent.”

Cappy’s is open daily from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. The new owners tried creating a weekend dinner menu but found that his customers preferred dining in the daytime, so evening service went away.

“At the end of the day, people know us for breakfast and lunch, not dinner,” Tim Campbell said. “Weekends we are full. Weekends are wild and crazy here.”

Plum’s on 17th Street

Now that the Campbells have Cappy’s humming along, they recently closed a deal to take ownership of Plum’s on 17th Street in Costa Mesa.

“The staff is fantastic, it’s been there 30 years, same owner, he wants to retire, and it’s a different customer base than Cappy’s,” Tim Campbell said.

Being successful in the restaurant business means understanding costs, Tim Campbell says.

“I run this as a business. I am comfortable with numbers. A lot of restaurant owners are in the kitchen, if you don’t have both, those restaurants can struggle.

“We look at every food item,” he said. “Things like seafood may have a lower margin, but I am okay with that. A lot of owners have no idea what their margins are. You have to know your numbers.

“I have also learned management styles. Leading people is critical. With Plum’s and Cappy’s, I will have 75 to 80 people working for me. For a lot of them it’s their career. They rely on us for their livelihood, and I take that very seriously.”

Menu Favorites

The owners of Cappy’s Café listen to their customers.

One longtime diner told Tim Campbell that he loved cinnamon swirl French toast and has seen it at other restaurants.

“I added it to our menu, and now it’s our bestseller,” he said.

Other popular dishes include the Vegetarian Skillet, with scrambled eggs, avocado, broccoli, bell peppers, mushrooms and cheddar cheese served atop seasoned potatoes.

It’s a wonderfully hearty dish that I’d make my go-to breakfast every time, except there are so many other wonderful dishes still to try.

Cappy’s Café: 5930 West Coast Highway, Newport Beach, (949) 646-4202, cappyscafe.com

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