by Mark McDermott
One day a few years ago, Allen Sanford and his young daughter, Annika, went for a paddle inside the Breakwater in King Harbor. It was the kind of perfect day few places can provide. Sunshine, ocean, the boisterous barking of sea lions, gulls swooping overhead, and the giggles of a happy kid echoed in the smile of her dad.
But when they got back to shore, something was missing. They didn’t feel like getting back in the car and going home. Looking around the harbor, though, they had nowhere to go.
“I was like, ‘Man, it’d be cool to just hang out,’ Sanford recalled. “We had a great paddle, and we were not ready to go home yet. You know, the Seaside Lagoon is fenced off. There’s no great coffee shop, and you are not going to a restaurant. There’s nowhere to hang.”
Such thoughts, for Sanford, tend not to pass by idly. As the founder of BeachLife Festival, he’d already spent a lot of time thinking about the unfulfilled possibilities of King Harbor — at the very beginning, in fact, Sanford was the only person who could walk through the lifeless parking lots of the harbor and envision the grounds of a major music festival.
City leaders, meanwhile, had spent the last twenty years trying to find a way to bring life to the Redondo Beach waterfront. Through accidents of misguided urban planning, over a half-century ago, and political stalemate ever since, the waterfront has remained mostly in a state of suspended dereliction. A bird’s eye view of King Harbor looks more like a forgotten suburban strip mall than it does a California waterfront. Until the inaugural BeachLife Festival in May 2019, rarely did people congregate in the harbor.
And that very thought got Sanford’s imagination working. What if, he thought, BeachLife could somehow be a year-round presence on the Redondo waterfront? What if that same sense of celebration over the things people love — literally, the beach life, music, and food — could bring people together at the harbor every day?
Sanford knew the first step. BeachLife needed a beachhead. In the same way a sculptor looks at a piece of clay and can see what shape it wants to take, or a good architect looks at a piece of land and sees what kind of building wants to be there, Sanford looked at the harbor and saw a place wanting a landing spot for people to hang out on their waterfront.
Then the pandemic happened. BeachLife in 2020 was postponed, then canceled. Along with COVID-19, the opposite of congregation arrived: people isolated. In the harbor, the iconic Ruby’s Diner was one of the first business casualties, closing its doors in September of that year. May 2021 came and went, with BeachLife again postponed — but finally, a light cracked through the darkness as the pandemic lessened, and the festival returned to life in September 2021. By this time, Sanford was leasing another former restaurant and bar in King Harbor, the Chillers building, in order to store festival equipment. And he’d heard that Jeff Jones, who runs Quality Seafoods, one of the longest-standing beloved restaurants on the Redondo Pier, was interested in taking over the Ruby’s building. Jones was also a vendor at BeachLife, so the two talked.
“It sort of became, well, wait a minute, hey, look at this. The two properties actually do connect the Loose line special,” Jones recalled. “And it was Allen who came to me and said, ‘What do you think if we turned it into one big great space?’”
Just like that, like a needle on a vinyl groove, an idea clicked into place — they’d work together and use the open space in between the two buildings to create an indoor-outdoor place for food, music, and just good old-fashioned getting together. They’d create the place that was missing that day three years ago when Sanford and his daughter were looking to hang out.
Suddenly it all made sense.
“I would have never seen it if I hadn't done the BeachLife. I would have never seen it If COVID hadn't happened,” Sanford said. “Meaning, outdoor space has now become a premium, right? One thing I learned from COVID is that we actually are pretty communal beings. It was crazy not hanging out, right? We also like to hang out with people who are like-minded, who like the same stuff as us. So this is bringing together people that love and respect the ocean. Something I noticed with BeachLife is that even people who don't agree politically were still on the beach, together, hands up when the music was going on. So this is that same thing — instead of having clubs around politics or religion or things that are divisive, why don't we come together around the things that people love?”
Thus was born the California Surf Club.
The concept is hard to describe because really nothing remotely like it exists. It’s not a restaurant, but it has a restaurant. It’s not a private club — it will very much be open to everyone — but it will also offer memberships and programming. The building plan itself is utterly unique: it’s not tearing anything down, but only adding to what is already there, taking two existing buildings, implementing adaptive reutilization, and connecting them by way of an outdoor area, thereby creating a 15,000-square-foot indoor/outdoor place.
The California Surf Club will be very specific to King Harbor while at the same time animated by a larger vision that is nothing less than what living the good life in the South Bay really means — which is to say, living the beach life.
“We are going to do everything that we are already doing,” Sanford said. “We're going to do music, we're going to do art, we're going to do active lifestyle. We're going to do business, speaker series, and sometimes we're going to do parties. We're going to basically do what we do at the BeachLife, but all the time. In my mind, it’s like making the BeachLife an everyday thing, which it already is.”
The California Surf Club will have a full menu, with a focus on wood-fired cooking, as well as a BBQ area for those who want to grill their own fresh catch. An idea of the scope of the activities that will occur at the club can be glimpsed in the fact that it will both offer surfboard and paddleboard use and conference rooms for business meetings. But if you really want to understand how broad and imaginative the concept is, just look at who comprises the team is that is bringing the Surf Club to fruition. In addition to Sanford and Jones, the team includes Jim Lindberg, the Pennywise lead singer who is also the creative director of BeachLife; Donavon Frankenreiter, the former pro surfer who has become a professional musician; Rob Lissner, a music venue owner, entrepenuer, and BeachLife’s cofounder; and and Keith Kaufman, the Redondo Beach chief of police.
As varied as their backgrounds are, everyone involved has two things in common — a love of local beach culture, and an absolute giddiness when talking about the vision for the California Surf Club.
For Lindberg, the project represents a culmination of the South Bay life he’s lived — he grew up as a skateboard and surf kid in Hermosa Beach, played punk rock shows at the Chillers as a teenager, and after touring around the world with his band was able help create the vision for the BeachLife Festival.
“I've been going down and riding my bike or my skateboard on the Strand from Manhattan Beach — growing up in Hermosa Beach and riding down to that King Karbor area — for so long,” Lindberg said. “It’s always had a certain funk to that area….it was a pretty wild and unruly place, and I think that is what the locals loved about it. So now the idea is to have a really cool spot to be able to go down and appreciate the culture that we have here. My vision for it is to really respect the culture that I grew up in.”
Lindberg believes that the Beach Cities deserves the title “Surf City” more than other cities that claim it, such as Huntington Beach and Santa Cruz, and he plans to use the surf club to celebrate that history.
“Whether it’s Dale Velzy, Dewey Weber, Greg Noll — all these names, the people who basically built the surf industry, right here in the South Bay,” Lindberg said “The first surf shop was here. With Body Glove, wetsuits originated here — there’s some debate on that, but the culture around surfing, and around skateboarding…and the industry around surfing, it happened here in the South Bay. The first commercial skateboard was also sold here, something a lot of people don’t know.”
He envisions a speaker series, and even a library featuring a collection of surf and skateboard books and magazines. And, of course, music. Lindberg cherishes South Bay music history, including venues such as the Lighthouse and He has organized the Speakeasy stage at BeachLife, which often features big-name artists playing acoustic sets that often are among the most soulful, resonant and locally-hallowed performances at each festival.
“My vision is having just really cool events down there,” Lindberg said. “I want to bring in a lot of big names and do small acoustic shows, and I want to have a really cool speaker series about how a lot of these people shaped the culture. It’s crazy to think about. From the volleyball scene to surfing to skateboarding — you know, Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach, we invented the cool.”
At the same time, Lindberg said, the surf club will also be a place for the whole family.
“I think that it’s important to have this thing be very family oriented and get young people involved in it, so they understand that we're very fortunate, unlike other places that don't have much of a history to look back on,” he said. “We have a fantastic history here, and just want to honor it.”
Kaufman is a Redondo Beach native. His father was an RBPD officer before him, and Kaufman has surfed the Avenues and the Breakwall all his life. He was police chief when the first BeachLife Festival happened and was skeptical from the early planning stages. He just didn’t see how you could fit a rock ‘n roll festival safely within the confines of the harbor.
He’d never met Sanford before, and when, at meetings, the topic of surfing came up, he was a bit perplexed — Sanford apparently surfed a lot of the spots he surfed, but he’d never seen him. Then one day he was at a surf spot off the Peninsula, and someone paddled up to him.
It was Sanford. They chatted briefly, then a set came in. Sanford paddled into the wave, and Kaufman watched, somewhat astounded.
“I was watching him take off on the wave, and he's backside up there, and I was like, ‘Oh! This guy is good,’” he recalled. “We were still in the planning stages of BeachLIfe at that point, and not that surfing should give credibility — but he was ripping, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, he’s real.’”
Kaufman was also impressed that Sanford was a team player, and all concerns about BeachLife — traffic congestion, parking, crime — did not come to pass. It was an extraordinarily safe and smoothly operated event. The biggest problem was having enough bike parking.
And so when Sanford approached Kaufman about helping put together the California Surf Club, the former chief was all in. He is helping, of course, with the same kind of logistical and safety issues, but he’s also another voice steeped in the actual local beach life.
“It's being able to talk about how people in the South Bay live, and what is going to attract them down there and have this be something that grows,” Kaufman said. “I think what's cool about this is that out of everything Allen does — nothing is short-term. The California Surf Club is the first puzzle piece, the footprint, the thing that everything else can grow from…First, let’s make this something everyone can enjoy, and we can grow from there and then start figuring out how to sustain it.”
From a community perspective, Kaufman thinks that the life that this project will inject into the harbor is a pivotal moment.
“Let’s face it, if this place changes just a little bit for the better, we are going to have the gem of the entire South Bay,” he said. “It’s just how do you do it without screwing it up and pissing everyone off? And I think the proof is in the pudding. Allen has already proven how to do it. You bring culture and music into it, and everyone comes down.”
The political backdrop is also changing. The City, which owns and leases all of the waterfront, in late March finally settled with spurned developer CenterCal, who’d proposed an extensive “lifestyle center” that many locals perceived as little more than a mall and rejected. This will help free up the Redondo waterfront from decades of stagnation.
Jones has been involved in the City’s Waterfront Amenities Project, which in coming years will invest millions in infrastructure and intends to renovate the entire area, adding bike paths and aesthetically upgrading everything from lighting to sea walls.
“So there's going to be a whole bunch of investment from the City going into the waterfront, and then you've got an opportunity finally to lease these properties that have been vacant for years,” he said. “And I think that everyone is sort of swimming together and we're going to wind up with an incredible waterfront in a few years.”
The idea is that public investment will spur private investment, and not from outsiders — but from the business community that already exists in the harbor.
“And that's kind of what really is what we are doing, right?” Jones said. “We're investing a few million dollars into this property, but we're not expanding the footprint of it. We're not changing the size or shape of the buildings. We're really just taking the existing shape, and we're just reenvisioning it. I think that is going to trigger others to do the same.”
Sanford said that Jones involvement is absolutely central to the California Surf Club. Through Quality Seafoods is not directly a part of the project, Jones has run the multi-generational family business for two decades, and it represents both an authentically local institution and a gold standard of success on the Redondo waterfront.
“Quality Seafood represents just total sustainability and credibility,” Sanford said. “You know, they have been biggest rent payer on the Redondo pier for decades, and if you look at that business, it's just unbelievable what they do….It’s probably as authentic as it gets.”
Lissner compared the vision of the Surf Club to process of putting together the lineup for BeachLife each year. BeachLife is now on the map nationally as a major music festival, but it’s still locals that drive it — those who organize the fest and nearly three-quarters of those attend are local. The key to its success, Lissner said, has been listening to what locals want. The same will be true, he said, for the California Surf Club.
“What I saw BeachLife as was proof of concept,” he said. “Alright, there was enough people in the South Bay and surrounding areas that really want something like this in their backyard. Recreation, that is exactly what this is — they want to come down to a place like this, which is the right thing for this area. What this is not is a big commercial development. I just don’t think that works as well. But when you have a bunch of local people who are really putting the community first — and that is the way I see it — we are listening to what people want.”
Mayor Bill Brand, who was essential in helping bring BeachLife to fruition, has been fighting against large commercial development in the harbor for over 20 years. What he’s always argued is that King Harbor is meant for recreation, not overdevelopment. He remembers arriving from Texas with to Redondo Beach in 1966, driving along Harbor Drive with his family thinking, “I get to live here?” BeachLife, and now the California Surf Club, are in keeping with his vision for the Redondo waterfront.
“This is what the Redondo waterfront was always meant to be,” Brand said. “I’ve known it since 1966, when I was an eight-year-old boy.”
Frankenreiter, who has played at BeachLife, remembers the question he kept hearing whenever he walked the festival grounds: why can’t the harbor be like this all the time? It was about music, of course, but more than that, it was about people coming together. He believes the Surf Club will begin to answer that question in the affirmative.
“It’s interesting, with the festival, Allen leaned on that name, BeachLife, because you are literally standing in the sand, and you are on the water,” Frankenreiter said. “I’ve played a million festivals, and it’s very rare you are standing on sand, that close to the water. And people have their own analogy of what their beach life is. Not everybody surfs…Maybe the tree trunk is BeachLife, and there’s all these branches off of it. There's concerts, car shows, motorcycle shows, there's surfing and boogie boarding and body surfing, there's food, there's drinks. There's good times, sort of a multitude of things on this tree of a beach life. It’s like there’s a million ways to ride a wave or to play music. Everybody’s got their interpretation of it. But it’s cool. It is for everyone.”
The Surf Club will encompass this larger vision of BeachLife.
“Another thing about surfing is that it’s such a part of so many other things,” Frankenreiter said. “Music, classic cars, car shows, motorcycles, and old vintage things. We are even going to have a really cool ‘redo’ market there on weekends, all retro stuff. We’ll have the whole skateboard thing in the parking lot where it’s all set up. The California Surf Club is not just for surfers. Surfers do a lot more than just surf. It’s a great space. And we can put a couple thousand people in there, so you can have amazing music shows.”
Kaufman acknowledges that the vision for the California Surf Club may seem almost too good to be true, but in so doing, he recalls a story. He was standing in the parking lot with Sanford, before the first BeachLife.
“Nothing is there,” he said. “They're starting to build a stage. And I'm standing there with Allen, and he goes, ‘Okay. I want you to picture this. Sunday night. First BeachLife. Willie Nelson is on that stage. You see those palm trees right there? Those palm trees will come through the stage. There's got to be a sunset off to the left of the stage. And Willie Nelson is going to be playing in Redondo Beach. Can you see it?’”
“I can see it,” Kaufman replied. “But oh my God, there are so many things that can go wrong.”
Kaufman, since retiring, has taken up flying. In his hangar, he has a photo of Willie Nelson playing Redondo Beach, thousands of people watching, a spectacular multi-hued sunset over King Harbor as a backdrop.
“This is how you know the guy has vision,” he said. “It’s not all talk. He takes the risk, puts it together, and it works.”
The California Surf Club is scheduled to open by May 2024, during the next BeachLife Festival.