The Unassuming East Bay Beach Strewn With Ceramic Treasures

Tepco beach is strewn with broken pieces of TEPCO pottery, dumped there when the factory was operating in El Cerrito. (Katrina Schwartz/KQED)

There’s something special about the little beach off the southern side of Point Isabel in Richmond, California.

It’s easy to miss — tucked in below the Costco and hidden from the bike path that runs around the point jutting out into the bay. I’ve passed it dozens of times and never thought much about it.

If you walk down onto the beach, you’ll notice shards of broken pottery, not sand or rocks. It’s an odd feeling, like you’ve stumbled on some kind of archaeological site right next to the Costco.

Locals affectionately call this place TEPCO beach after the Technical Porcelain and Chinaware Company that used to operate in nearby El Cerrito.

Bay Curious listener Jo Anne Yada visited TEPCO beach for the first time a few months ago with a friend. She soon found some treasures.

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“I found some pieces that I took home with me and one of the pieces was a mug that said Papagayo Room,” Yada said. She looked it up when she got home, and discovered that the Papagayo Room was a restaurant located in San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel. Famous people like Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe and Nat King Cole used to hang out there.

The whole experience of visiting TEPCO beach and finding some local lore there got Jo Ann wondering about the history of this bizarre ceramic-strewn beach.

What is TEPCO?

TEPCO Factory Production Line circa 1955.
TEPCO Factory Production Line circa 1955. A worker airbrushes rim pattern design on plates in the upstairs decorating shop, with 12 spray booths. (Flickr/r_leontiev)

The Technical Porcelain and Chinaware Company ran a factory that pumped out tens of thousands of pieces of handmade pottery every day. At one point, it was the largest employer in El Cerrito, employing more than 200 people.

An Italian immigrant by the name of John Pagliero started the company in 1918 in his backyard as a side project. Eventually he quit his "day job" to devote all his time to the new company, moving it to El Cerrito, near the Santa Fe Railroad tracks, in 1930. When the factory was first built, there wasn't much else nearby.

The front of the TEPCO factory, taken in 1955.
Built in 1947, this TEPCO factory building, located in El Cerrito, California, consisted of a brick front office (shown) and a barrel-vaulted, concrete-reinforced production factory. (Flickr/r_leontiev)

Pagliero originally made porcelain appliances like sinks and toilets, but soon discovered he could make more money manufacturing everyday items like plates and mugs.

Joseph Heaven talked to John Pagliero’s nephew, Eddie Pagliero, and another longtime TEPCO worker for an American Craft article about the company. They described John Pagliero this way:

“They all described John Pagliero as an energetic, good-natured 'hands-on' potter with a strong back and sure hands. He spent his workday on the production line, and left the paperwork to his family. ‘The old man could do any job,’ Eckman told me, ‘and do it right.’ Eddie agreed. ‘He came from a time when potters did everything by hand from start to finish.’”

Many local Bay Area restaurants like Louie’s Restaurant Club, Doggie Diner and Spenger’s Fish Grotto used TEPCO dishes in their restaurants. They were thick, glossy and durable. Pagliero would make custom designs for restaurants he liked.

Victor Bergeron — inventor of the Mai Tai — ordered his original ware for Trader Vic’s from TEPCO, and in honor of Mark Twain, a Calaveras County hotel ordered custom tableware with jumping frogs on them.

By all accounts, John Pagliero was a good salesman because TEPCO plates were all over California. During World War II, TEPCO sold its dishes to the U.S. Army and Navy, who used full sets of TEPCO dishes in their mess halls and on ships.

Tom Panas at the El Cerrito Historical Society has a particular interest in what happened to the area’s Japanese community during World War II. Most Japanese Americans living in West Contra Costa County were sent to Topaz internment camp in Utah. Panas has visited the site of the camp, where very little remains. However, near a garbage site, Panas found a piece of TEPCO pottery.

If TEPCO dishes were so popular, what happened to the company?

TEPCO Factory - Production Line - 1955. Sanding wares. (Flickr/r_leontiev)

TEPCO suffered several fires over the course of its history. A big one in 1946 burned the original factory down, but Pagliero replaced it and kept pumping out pottery. John Pagliero died in 1968, and Panas says rumor has it that his two sons couldn't decide who would take over the company. Also, El Cerrito was changing rapidly by then. It was becoming more residential, and the TEPCO factory sat right in the middle of the town. Panas thinks some neighbors were ready to have a less noisy and intrusive neighbor. Whatever the reason, the factory closed in 1968.

But why does the beach have so much pottery on it?

The beach is a treasure trove of broken plates, mugs and bowls. (TJ Gehling/Flickr)

TEPCO used to dump its chipped and damaged dishes on the beach off Point Isabel. That may seem crazy now, but back then there weren’t many environment regulations. Even Point Isabel itself looked different. It was a hill with trees on it! The shoreline was owned by Santa Fe Railroad and its development arm was considering filling in part of the bay near Point Isabel to build an industrial park. A little bit of pottery most likely didn’t bother them.

It wasn’t until the late 1960s, through the advocacy of the organization Save The Bay, that lawmakers began considering what should and shouldn’t be dumped in the Bay. The organization’s founders — Sylvia McLaughlin, Kay Kerr and Esther Gulick — were concerned about the amount of infill going on around the Bay and fought to stop it.

What happened to the Pagliero family?

John Pagliero & Crew - 1955
John Pagliero and crew - 1955. (Flickr/r_leontiev)

Tom Panas at the El Cerrito Historical Society didn’t know much about what happened to Pagliero’s children after he died. A few relatives came to an exhibit of TEPCO pottery the historical society put on a few years back, and a cousin made an amateur documentary about TEPCO, but that’s about it.

Why are we still talking about TEPCO if it hasn’t existed since the 1960s?

Lynn Maack and his late wife Sandi Genser Maack pose with their TEPCO collection at the Richmond Museum's TEPCO exhibition in 2011.
Lynn Maack and his late wife Sandi Genser Maack pose with their TEPCO collection at the Richmond Museum's TEPCO exhibition in 2011. (Courtesy of Lynn Maack)

There’s an avid community of TEPCO collectors out there. It’s fairly easy to find dishes at flea markets around the state, although less common to see the dishes used “in the wild,” at real diners. But, every once in a while, you can spot them. Look for the telltale green stamp on the bottom.

Our question asker, Jo Anne Yada, may now count herself among those collectors. She and her friends like to cook vintage dishes around Christmas time and serve them up on authentic cookware. This Christmas dinner just might be served on TEPCO.

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