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Sign of Times: It's Lights Out for Chef

December 30, 1985|ARMANDO ACUNA | Times Staff Writer

For 20 years, the Sandwich Factory's brightly lit chef with his pencil-thin mustache and knowing wink has beckoned to San Diego's hungry--be they sailors, shoppers, tourists, merchants, office workers or assorted downtown oddballs--with the promise of jumbo hamburgers and 100 different sandwiches.

He's hard to miss, this plastic chef, glued as he is to a bright, faded-red sign nearly two stories high and ringed with dozens of blinking yellow light bulbs.

Yes, the sign is garish. Gaudy, of course. A throwback to yesteryear, most certainly. And it's arguably the biggest in San Diego. But in its own way, it is a landmark, having survived intact downtown's life-to-death-to-resurrection journey as few other things have. Over the years, its glaring image represented downtown to many a local and visitor alike.

In a few weeks, however, the sign is coming down, a victim of changing times, tastes and redevelopment. But the guts behind the sign, a remodeled Sandwich Factory, 4th Avenue's version of a New York-style delicatessen, is staying.

And that's good news for Ed Carter and Joe Tomuccio, two New York City boys who became business partners more than 35 years ago when, as teen-agers, they opened a hot dog stand in Brooklyn. But the West Coast, with its sunny skies and milder climate, beckoned, and the young men responded, opening the Sandwich Factory two decades ago.

It was the mid-1960s. Lyndon Johnson was President, the Beatles were the kings of music, gasoline was 25 cents a gallon and downtown San Diego was a sailor's paradise, where a glaring sign two stories high was just another part of the scene.

"It was a good-time area, a good-time area," Carter said delicately, referring to the blocks of bars, go-go clubs, adult arcades, tattoo parlors and hookers that set up shop in the Gaslamp Quarter. It was also a time of good business for the Sandwich Factory.

"We had lines of people waiting to get in . . . we had 10 times the business we do now, and we do OK now," Carter said.

Offering a diverse and inexpensive menu of sandwiches, soups, home-style dinners and desserts, the Sandwich Factory attracted a varied clientele, much as it does today. "We got and still get families with children, people on fixed income, three little old ladies from Altoona, Pennsylvania, (who are) visiting, businessmen and sailors," said Carter. "Just that, back then, there were more of them."

As partners, Tomuccio and Carter divide the work. Tomuccio, with a large tattoo on his arm and bushy mustache, mans the grill while Carter, a gregarious, wiry man who wears dark, horn-rimmed glasses, handles the cash register, buses tables and talks with reporters.

In the 1970s, downtown's roller coaster was speeding downhill, taking with it stores, offices and restaurants that closed or chose to chase their fleeing customers into the growing suburbs. But the Sandwich Factory stayed, blinking lights, $1.99 breakfast specials and all.

It wasn't, however, immune to what was happening around it. Business dropped off significantly. The restaurant itself started to show signs of wear, a tattered chair here, a worn floor there. And the large sign outside, now faded by the sun to a pinkish hue and with many burned-out bulbs, seemed to symbolize the decline of an entire area that had outlived its usefulness.

To the rescue came the urban paramedics, embodied in redevelopment agencies, historic conservation and rehabilitation groups and old-line downtown businesses. Gradually, downtown began to regain its former strength.

Fueling this rebirth was a mixture of new high-rises, apartments, restaurants, hotels and the most ambitious project of all--the $130-million Horton Plaza shopping center.

"We've seen so many changes in this area, so many ups and downs," said Carter.

The changes continue.

Fourth Avenue between Broadway and E Street, where the Sandwich Factory is located, is getting a major face lift. Many of the restaurant's former neighbors--dilapidated bars, a check-cashing place, a record store, an adult bookstore--are gone.

The new owners of the Sandwich Factory's building--held in trust by the Continental Land Trust Co.--are following plans laid out by the Centre City Development Corp., the city's downtown redevelopment agency, and kicking out seedy businesses in favor of establishments more in keeping with a new, sanitized image of downtown.

Carter and Tomuccio were afraid they weren't part of that future, and their fears were heightened when the new landlord proposed increasing their rent to $7,000 a month, more than Carter said they could afford based on their current business.

But the draft of the new lease agreement proposes to raise the rent gradually over several years, and Carter said the upgrading that goes along with the new lease will help draw more customers. So the Sandwich Factory is staying.

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