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Before Surf City, There Was Dwight's

Landmarks: Huntington Beach hot dog stand owner has witnessed the evolution of the beach.

September 23, 2002|MIKE ANTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Forget about what's in the secret sauce that has enticed beach bums for generations. Perhaps the most important ingredient in making a success of selling hot dogs, hamburgers and soft ice cream on the Huntington Beach boardwalk is knowing when not to try.

For Jack Clapp, that time of year is nearing--the off season when the coastal fog lingers past noon, the ocean serves up a nippy breeze and the beach is so empty you could land a jumbo jet on it.

"You're kind of wasting your time spending the day down here just to make a hundred dollars," said Clapp, who in the fall begins to scan the weather report to decide whether he wants to go to work that day.

Clapp, 72, ought to know. He owns Dwight's, a Huntington Beach landmark where his family has been dishing up food and renting umbrellas and beach gear for 70 years.

Clapp was 2 when his father, Dwight, set up shop in 1932 during the Great Depression. Dwight Clapp was a man ahead of his time, an oil field roustabout convinced that tourism--not oil--was Huntington Beach's future.

"This was an oil town in those days," Jack Clapp said. "This whole area was a sea of oil wells. They looked like Christmas trees all the way down the coast. My father didn't want to spend his whole future in the oil business. It was tough, hard, dirty work."

His father persuaded the City Council to build a lifeguard tower on newly acquired land south of the pier, and to rent him a corner of the tower for $100 a year.

Before surfing became big in Surf City, Dwight Clapp was there.

He and his wife, Fae, worked seven days a week and late into the night, forming ground beef patties by hand and chopping potatoes.

Hamburgers and hot dogs cost a dime; ice cream bars, candy and soda in glass bottles a nickel. Much of the Clapps' income came from umbrella rentals. In its first year, Dwight's rang up $624 in sales.

Jack Clapp began working at Dwight's when he was 10, reclaiming soda bottles for their deposit. Growth spurred by Southern California's postwar boom boosted business at Dwight's, so much so that Dwight Clapp opened a drive-in.

Jack took over managing Dwight's. He was 17.

"It's just something you get used to, and it gets hard to leave," he said. "I like the people. I like the challenge of running the place. It's a great environment. You're at the beach, working in the open air. It's not like being stuck in an office all day."

Eventually, Clapp opened his own concession. Taking a marketing cue from his father, he named the place Jack's. He moved back to Dwight's when his father retired. Today, his son Dave runs Jack's.

Much has changed at Dwight's over seven decades. A new building went up in 1939; it was replaced in 1967. The beach itself is four times as wide. An hour of parking costs as much as 15 hamburgers once did. And downtown Huntington Beach--once renowned as a scruffy surfer's hangout--has gone upscale with a luxury resort and beach-view mansions.

"My father said he watched bikinis change from bloomers to Band-Aids," said Clapp.

The menu at Dwight's has changed too. Hamburgers don't sell like they used to, so Clapp added chicken sandwiches 10 years ago, breakfast burritos and fish and chips five years later.

The biggest seller by far has been cheese strips with Dwight's original sauce--tortilla chips, cheddar cheese and a hot sauce the Clapp family has been making for 42 years. Dwight Clapp got the idea from a taco stand, and the spicy red sauce he created tastes a lot like, well, taco sauce--although his son says it's much more complicated than that.

"I'll tell you what's in it," Clapp said. The secret concoction includes tomato puree, brown sugar, vinegar, chili powder and garlic. "But I won't tell you how to make it."

He sells the stuff by the quart and gallon, a lot of it to aging beach-goers nostalgic for a taste of their youth. Last year, a Florida woman who had lived in Huntington Beach 25 years ago called seeking sauce.

"I'm pregnant," she told Clapp. "I'm just dying to have strip sauce."

He froze some and Fed-Ex'd it to her.

Clapp has made a good living with Dwight's, although it has by no means made him rich. When his four children were growing up, he supplemented his income with winter jobs. In summer, he still works at Dwight's eight or nine hours a day, nearly every day.

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