Tradition Goes Up Against a Better Business Vision

Beach goers congregate around the Efstathious family concession stand at Salt Creek Beach on a weekend day.

Norberto Santana, Jr.

Beach goers congregate around the Efstathious family concession stand at Salt Creek Beach on a weekend day.

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Friday, April 30, 2010 |Two immigrant families are vying for the opportunity to showcase Orange County’s surf culture by operating a small food concession sitting atop a picturesque bluff overlooking Dana Point’s Salt Creek Beach.

Ongoing since last September, the battle goes before county supervisors next week. Board members will be confronted with the difficult question of what comes first regarding the county’s concessions: Keeping a tradition alive or the promise of increased revenue.

The competition is also providing a window into the behind-the-scenes machinations that often come before the decisions supervisors make on the dais.

Currently, the Dana Point concession is operated by the Efstathiou family, led by their father John. They have been serving breakfast burritos and apple burritos from the small shack for two decades.

In the wings is the Ali family, which operates a series of beach concessions and currently operates Zack’s Pier Plaza and Zack’s Too in Huntington Beach. Family patriarch Mike Ali wants to expand to Dana Point.

The Efstathious are banking on the connection they’ve made over the years with the locals. Family members have gathered more than 1,300 signatures for a petition in their favor.

And at the February meeting of the Orange County Parks Commission, Efstathiou brought a pile of letters from local officials and residents who say he’s become a fixture in the beach community.

Natalie Efstauiou, John’s daughter, told parks commissioners that Salt Creek Beach isn’t “a typical loud overcrowded Huntington Beach-type beach.”

Mike Ali counters that the site is underutilized. He called Efstathiou an “absentee owner” arguing that the site is often not open. He also said the concession’s $30,000 annual revenue for the county could be significantly hiked with a better business plan.

“We have a lot of ideas for Salt Creek,” Ali told commissioners. Being so close to two upper-end hotels (St. Regis and Ritz Carlton) is a big advantage, Ali said. “The concession has a lot of potential.”

When county park officials put the concession up for bid last year, Efstathiou initially came out on top of the written proposals evaluated by county real estate staff.

But in the oral interviews, Ali, who promised a better theme and more revenue, ended up being endorsed by the county staff as the better proposal.

That triggered calls of foul play from Efstathiou’s attorney, Lynne Geyser, who argued that none of Ali’s promises were in writing.

Park commissioners considered the two proposals publicly in February during a long and heated session. They ended up going against the staff recommendation, voting 4-2 to keep the concession with Efstathiou.

The county parks staff then altered their report based on the parks commission vote. That prompted the questions from Supervisor John Moorlach, who represents Ali’s district.

It’s usual for such advisory commissions to take votes on issues but the original staff recommendation usually stays the same. Top-level elected officials — such as supervisors or city council members — then typically decide whether to endorse or reject the suggestions of their staff and advisory panels.

The beach concession was scheduled to be debated by the supervisors last month. But Moorlach delayed the item, asking County CEO Tom Mauk to look into the protocols, courtesies and etiquettes on county advisory commissions.

Mauk said he’d further research the issue – fueling speculation that the recommendation might change. That has some parks commissioners concerned.

“I thought the staff report as it’s written right now does not give an accurate picture of why the commission came to decision it did,” said Parks Commissioner Matt Cunningham.

“It makes it seem like a bunch of people signed a petition and we caved in. And that’s not what happened. We spent a few hours on it going over it. We asked a lot of questions. I went in there with an open mind.”

There is no county policy dictating that a commission’s vote can’t actually be listened to and used to change a staff recommendation.

And apparently, that’s exactly what OC Parks Director Mark Denny did.

“We revised our staff recommendation to reflect the commission’s input and respect the hard work they did to conduct a lengthy public hearing, taking all the public testimony. We wanted our recommendation to reflect that hard work.”

“They contributed to the process here,” Denny said. “We recognize we did something different. We didn’t necessarily follow past practice,” emphasizing the phrase, “practice not policy.”

Don Hughes, a policy advisor for County Supervisor Pat Bates — who represents the district where Efstathiou lives and the concession is located — said their office agrees with the parks commission decision.

“We let the commission process play out,” Hughes said. “The process did what it was supposed to do.”

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