Friday, April 16, 2010

Laguna Beach Living

LAGUNA BEACH – After months of 15-hour work days, Michael Weiss was eager to host friends and family at the completed Sands Café at Aliso Beach.

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Weiss and a partner leased the concession stand property in March 2009 from the county with plans to turn it into a year-round café, offering a full menu doesn't work.

Unlike a traditional walk-up concession stand, Weiss aimed to create a dining destination. The café would have served daily beach goers, but the tables in the sand enabled a full menu, including breakfast, with a higher price point and quality. With a café, Weiss said he could count on enough business to stay open ten months out of the year. A concession stand, Weiss said, could only stay open 5 months yearly, which would ultimately lose money.

With its custom décor, quality meal choices and family-friendly atmosphere, Weiss said he hoped the café would draw people to Aliso Beach.

"They were going to have a memory to take home with them," Weiss said.

Orange County owns the land at Aliso Beach, which is a county park. After requesting proposals, the county approved Weiss' business plan and offered a lease, allowing for the beach seating area and storage containers.

Weiss continued to work to get the café ready for opening, when a local activist pointed out the outdoor seating and storage containers needed a new coastal development permit.

The Coastal Commission, a state agency which supersedes county authority, oversees any development that could affect beach access or use. Rich Adler of OC Parks said the county interpreted development as new structures – not moveable tables and storage containers.

"In most cases, we are fully aware of all the issues that relate to what we're doing in our beaches and parks," Adler said. "This is new."

The county saw the café as a positive use of the beach that would encourage more people to come. And since the tables would go into storage at night, Adler said it seemed no more dramatic than other day uses, like weddings or a junior lifeguard program.

"We never really thought twice we couldn't do it on our own sand," he said.

Laguna Beach's planning commission, which handles coastal development permits through the city's local coastal program, approved of the café, said city manager Ken Frank. But the storage containers and tables in the sand were another matter, he said. Though Weiss could go back and apply for a new permit, approval is unlikely.

"We don't approve those types of uses on the sandy beach," Frank said, adding the city was unaware of the tables and storage containers when it approved Weiss' business.

Now, Weiss knows his plan to create a destination café won't happen. When he walks through the building, he points out items that are now unusable if the café reverts back to a concession stand – breakfast foods, a convection oven, extra refrigerators, appliances and of course, the tables.

Unsure when or if he'll be able to continue at the location, Weiss laid off 13 employees, two who had left other jobs to work at the Sands. He doesn't know if the business can be salvaged or if the county can help. Weiss estimates he spent $250,000 building up the café, money he thought would be an investment. Though his four children are all under 6, he hoped they would grow up to help run the family business.

"Lots of mouths to feed with no business," he said. "It's a bad situation."

Contact the writer: or 949-454-7309

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