An image from a recreation of the original TEPCO catalogue. (Andria Lo)
I saw my first TEPCO dish at the Alameda Antiques Fair. A stack of floral patterned plates sat on a table, waiting to be bought. The pink glaze glistened in the sun. I immediately fell in love.
TEPCO dishes are ceramic, dense and glossy; the types of dishes you might find at a diner. From 1930 to 1968, TEPCO -- the Technical Porcelain and Chinaware Company -- made dishes like these out of their factory in El Cerrito, north of Berkeley. And though they look pretty ordinary, TEPCO dishes are actually really meaningful to a small band of collectors all over California.
Sandi Genser-Maack and her husband, Lynn Maack, are TEPCO collectors. For years, they’ve been scouring flea markets and estate sales, in search of these heavy, kitschy dishes. Sandi remembers when she and Lynn scored a rare TEPCO find.
“We always go antiquing wherever we go. And way down low, in a cabinet where you could hardly see were two Doggie Diner mugs! We bought them, and we were so excited we were quivering,” Sandi says.
Sandi and Lynn have an outdoor shed filled with TEPCO dishes. They had a newsletter called the TEPCO Tribune, and started the TEPCO Collectors Club. Every few months, club members would get together, and visit restaurants that still use TEPCO dishes.
At a cafe in El Cerrito, Sandi and Lynn flip through a binder full of images from the original TEPCO catalogue. They have pictures of every plate ever made, in every pattern.
Some dishes sport wild decorations: bamboo leaves, wagon wheels, flowers, and pagodas. And each pattern has an equally wild name, like “Confucius,” “Western Traveler,” “Pixie,” and “Flame.”
Even though they love TEPCO, Sandi and Lynn also know that, to most people, TEPCO dishes are kind of ugly and clunky. “They’ve got dings, scratches, and knots. And the quality is very bad, but we love them,” Sandi says.
The TEPCO factory was really a centerpiece for the El Cerrito community. TEPCO was El Cerrito’s biggest employer. Hundreds of people worked at the factory, making tens of thousands of pieces of pottery every day.
TEPCO was founded in 1930 by Italian immigrant John Pagliero. He started out making porcelain kitchen appliances, like toilets and sinks. But Pagliero realized he could do a lot more business by selling everyday items, like plates and cups.
Pagliero made a name for himself as a great salesman, and TEPCO dishes were everywhere. Local Bay Area restaurants like Louie’s Restaurant Club, Doggie Diner and Spenger’s Fish Grotto asked Pagliero to create custom designed plates. TEPCO dishes were even used at the Kaiser shipyards. The U.S. Army and Navy used full sets of TEPCO in their mess halls and on their ships.
Local families also used TEPCO dishes in their kitchens. El Cerrito mothers, the story goes, used to tell their kids to bike down to the TEPCO factory to pick up an extra table setting.
The factory was going strong, until John Pagliero died in 1968. Tom Panas from the El Cerrito Historical Society says rumor has it that the family was squabbling over who would take over. And, at the same time, El Cerrito was changing, becoming more residential. Some neighbors didn't want to live next to a big, noisy factory. Whatever the reason, the factory closed down in 1968.*
Now, all that's left of the factory is a place affectionately known as TEPCO Beach. Factory workers used to drive the broken plates over to Point Isabel, in Richmond, and dump them along the shoreline.
The porcelain pieces were never cleaned up, and now, multicolored TEPCO shards are piled in a thick layer on top of the sand, mixed in with dried seaweed. Walk on the beach, and you hear the crunch of porcelain underneath your feet.
TEPCO beach is tucked away off the Point Isabel bike path, but those who know of this secret spot like to come and hunt for special treasures: patterned pieces, handles broken off from teacups and, if you’re lucky, a full-sized plate.
On a recent day at TEPCO beach, Lynn Maack is watching the tide wash in over the shards.
His wife, Sandi, passed away a few months earlier.
“You know I look at some of my TEPCO collection, and it's lost some of its luster. It’s something Sandi and I did together, and now I can't even look at some of it,” Lynn says.
People with a passion for TEPCO are getting harder and harder to find, and, it’s even more difficult to find people who remember life at the factory.
I was going to interview a man named Frank Storno, the last living TEPCO factory worker. But the day before our interview, he died. He was 101 years old. As TEPCO fans start to disappear, Lynn’s TEPCO collection has taken on even more meaning, a sort of ode to the factory and the people that handmade these dishes.
Lynn has considered that, to some people, his TEPCO collection is just a set of ugly dishes, nothing more.
"They’re probably not going to be important to someone else when I’m gone," he says.
But, it’s important to me.
I’ve started collecting TEPCO dishes now. They’re pretty easy to find at flea markets all around California, especially the Alameda Antiques Fair. But I think it’s more fun to see TEPCO dishes in use, in the wild.
Every so often, I sit down to eat at a diner, and think I see a TEPCO plate. I now flip dishes over to check if they have the green TEPCO stamp on the back. They rarely do.
But, I’ll keep flipping dishes over. Because one day, I might find a TEPCO plate. And that will be really nice.
*An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed the factory's closure in 1968 to a kiln fire. While there was a fire in 1946, Pagliero rebuilt the factory then. We regret the error.