A group of South Bay residents rally together to keep a Manhattan Beach staple locally owned.
- CategoryEat & Drink
- Written byAmber Klinck
- Photographed byShane O’Donnell
Eric Choi takes a minute to search for a bottle of water in the empty restaurant. It’s early; the doors haven’t yet opened for business. “I’m not usually behind the bar,” he explains. As the new majority owner of Fonz’s Restaurant, along with nearly 30 additional partners, Eric smiles as he describes the group as more “restaurant-goers” than “restauranteurs.”
So how did Eric and several other South Bay locals come together to invest in the Manhattan Beach steak-and-seafood staple? “There’s a lot to the story at the end of the day,” says Eric. “But mainly it’s about Danny, his great staff, the following he has, and all of us coming together and saying we don’t want to see Fonz’s go away.”
Founded in 1997 by Dan Boehle and Olympic beach volleyball player Mike Dodd (whose father the restaurant was named after), Fonz’s has that everybody-knows-your-name-feel. Dan refers to it as the “Cheers of Manhattan Beach,” with two decades of locals making it their go-to restaurant.
“It’s social,” explains Fonz’s general manager, Nancy Mason-Reynolds. “You’re always going to see someone you know.”
Nancy was part of the team back in 1997 when the restaurant first opened. “I had moved to California from the midwest to play volleyball,” she notes. “Being able to work here allowed me to be successful in my beach volleyball career, so it’s kind of come full circle.”
With 20-year regulars and staff members that have been part of the team since the doors first opened, it’s not surprising that a group of South Bay residents wanted to rally together and keep it a locally owned business. Dan, whom Eric describes as “a very hands-on guy who was [at the restaurant] all the time,” was ready to pass the torch.
“Danny had a number of other buyers—all from out of town, like New York guys—which would have completely changed the restaurant,” Eric notes. So in late 2016, going into early 2017, Eric started discussing the possibility of purchasing Fonz’s from Dan. Well, Eric and a few of his friends.
“It’s social. You’re always going to see someone you know.”
“It’s interesting the number of investors we have in the restaurant,” says Eric. “It’s got to be about 30 guys, which is a lot, right? And all local. That’s a pretty compelling story. [Nancy and I] were going to take it over regardless. We threw it out to who we knew and were like, ‘We’re going to take over Fonz’s; who wants to participate?’ It was cool.”
The investment group took over ownership on July 1, 2017, and began implementing a few changes that October. “We now have only one chef in the kitchen [Margarito Garcia], and he’s been great,’ says Eric. “He added a real spark. The guys are fired up; everyone’s fired up. And we’ve made a few subtle changes [to the interior]. We’re trying to put our own spin on it without losing the foundation of our clientele, or the menu. We have really good seafood and really good steaks. That’s what we’re known for.”
With such a tried-and-true reputation and solid fan base, Eric and Nancy aren’t looking to reinvent the wheel with Fonz’s. In fact, part of the reason they took the project on was to keep the restaurant from dissolving into something completely different—something Eric feels would have been a sure thing should an outside buyer have taken over.
They do hope, however, to attract some new regulars as Manhattan Beach continues to grow and evolve as a beach community, with menu items that would satisfy any self-proclaimed foodie and a fun and familiar atmosphere that’s perfect for dinner and drinks with friends or a date night away from the kids.
“It’s fine dining, but it’s not stuffy,” says Nancy. Which is just how we like it here in the South Bay.