LONG BEACH — The Chowder Barge has been moved only twice in 19 years.
One move was planned. The barge was towed to San Pedro for a coat of protective ferro cement in 1974. The other move was unplanned. It was ripped from the dock and into a shipping channel during a severe winter storm several years ago.
Now the floating restaurant is going to have to move again. But the family that runs the place says there is nowhere to go.
The barge is a casual beer-and-burger joint that from the outside looks more like a houseboat than a restaurant. It attracts a loyal though eclectic clientele, from dirt-smeared dockworkers to executives in button-down shirts. They dine nearly elbow to elbow during busy lunch hours, slurping clam chowder from cardboard bowls on wooden tables.
The barge is being ousted to make way for expansion at the Port of Long Beach. Owners of the 140 boats in the surrounding West 7th Street Marina have been told that they, too, will have to leave by the end of the month.
The notice comes as a blow to the family that has lovingly run the eatery for all these years, Lisle and Mary Panter, a son, Gary, and a daughter, Pamela Berool.
This Will Be the Third Time
Her parents "have worked very hard to bring the barge to where it is," said Berool, a waitress. "This is the third restaurant they've built up. It's going to get torn down again?"
Panter, 64, said he had to leave two previous restaurants before he bought the barge. His restaurant by Watchorn Basin in San Pedro burned down. His seaside cafe on Terminal Island was closed when Matson Navigation Co. wanted to expand its container ship terminal.
Business at the barge has never been better than over the last two months, Berool said. But patronage is declining now because customers are under the mistaken belief that the place has been closed, she added.
The closure is being forced by the sale of the massive Procter & Gamble soap factory to the port for $23.5 million. The restaurant and marina are on P & G property that is part of the deal.
The port plans to tear down the giant concrete-and-steel plant to make more space for cargo. The last box of Tide detergent will come off the production line by the end of the month and the plant will officially be turned over to the city by October, P & G spokesman Jim Paulk said.
The closure is not catching anyone by surprise. The company announced its plans last year and has been slowly winding down operations at the plant.
The work force has dwindled in the past year from 420 to the current 320 workers. Paulk said about a third of those are expected to retire, another third are expected to be assigned to other P & G facilities, and remaining workers probably will seek other jobs in the Long Beach area.
Paulk said he is a regular barge patron himself, but there is nothing that P & G can do to help its owners find a new place. Port officials, likewise, say they are perplexed.
"I've talked to the owner of the Chowder Barge and tried to find a spot for him," said James C. Larsen, the port's associate director of properties. "I'm not optimistic . . . I can't think of anyplace."
Lisle Panter said he would like to stay in the Port of Long Beach. A new location at Shoreline Village and Marina was considered, he said, but there is not enough parking.
When he started the Chowder Barge, the marina stretched farther west along land now belonging to the port. Back then, there were nearly 300 boats in the marina. Less than half remain now.
Odd Assortment of Customers
The toughest thing about leaving would be breaking up the barge's family of customers, Berool said. Part of the fun of the restaurant is the odd assortment of patrons.
"You never know whether a suit is going to come through that door or a bikini or a worker covered in grime," she said. About the only violators of the restaurant's liberal dress code are divers in wet wet suits, Panter added.
Some customers are so familiar with the place that they draw their own beers and settle the tab on the honor system when they leave.
One regular, retired longshoreman Charlie Sotelo of Carson, said he would hate to see the place go.
"I think it should stay here," said Sotelo, a fisherman nicknamed Charlie Tuna. "We should have some consideration."
Airline pilot Roger Wheeler of Huntington Beach, who has been a regular customer for the 15 years that he has kept his boat in the West 7th Street Marina, said, "It's family around here. These people have been here a long time."
Wheeler said, however, that he is not ready to give up on the restaurant or the marina slip. He said he plans to wait a bit longer before deciding whether to move his 31-foot sportfishing boat.
"I'm going to stick it out. This place could close in a month. It could close in a year," he said of the marina.
Other boat owners resent plans to clear the marina. They say that slips are difficult to find in other marinas. Indeed, a check of various city-owned and private marinas indicates a shortage of slips. City marinas have waiting lists from a few months to a year, depending on the size of the boat. Private marinas have a few spaces, but they are generally occupied during the summer.
Boat Owners React
West 7th Street boat owners said they believe the port should help them find new slips.
"I just bought my boat," said Roger Scarlett of Paramount. "They say you're going to have to move your boat in a month? It's not right."
His brother, Ray Scarlett of Bellflower, said it is ridiculous to force boat owners out by the end of July when it will take months and months to convert the P & G property for use by the port.
Larsen said that the eviction matter is a landlord-tenant problem and that the port, like any buyer of property, would not be involved.