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Fun: A mural by UK artist Jamie Morrison graces the 11th Street facade of The Sardine. (photo: John Mattera Photography)

Mike Watt is about to go off.

Isaac Thotz (standing) and Todd Congelliere, co-owners of The Sardine. (photo: John Mattera Photography)

It’s 10 p.m. on a brisk Friday night at the end of February, and the 62-year-old punk rock legend, wearing his trademark yellow windbreaker, is about to blow the doors off of San Pedro’s newest live music venue, The Sardine. Watt and his Secondmen, which includes San Pedrans Pete Mazich on keyboard and Jerry Trebotic on drums, take the stage to thunderous applause from the standing-room-only crowd, a generational mix of college kids, millennials, Gen Xers, and baby boomers. 

After a quick introduction, Watt wails “PEEEDROOO!” and the trio launches into a blistering set of punk rock that can be heard down Pacific Avenue. 

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Smiling at the side of the stage are Todd Congelliere and Isaac Thotz, musicians and co-owners of The Sardine. Two years ago, the idea of opening a new live music spot in San Pedro seemed like an impossible feat. Now, as the two watch 160-plus people crowd into the back of the former Ramona Bakery building on 11th and Pacific to watch Mike Watt and the Secondmen do their thing, they’re thinking maybe this can actually work.

FROM PASTRIES TO PUNK ROCK
The painted sign on the wall of the 11th Street side of the building has a big blue arrow pointing towards the entrance with the word “FUN” in large, white letters. The sign, a mural by UK artist Jamie Morrison, stands out, mainly for the positivity it exudes on an avenue that has seen better days. 

Aside from the music, the foosball table has surprisingly become the Sardine’s most popular attraction. (photo: John Mattera Photography)

Inside the front of the bar, which was once the retail space of San Pedro’s iconic Ramona Bakery, blue walls are complimented by mustard curtains that are drawn to keep the glare out during the day. The venue’s name, a random suggestion from their musician friend Barry Johnson, is painted across the large bay windows. On one wall, a few dozen soundtrack album covers from 1980s films are hung in uniform, while skateboard decks featuring a variety of different artwork line another above the entryway. Beneath it all sit three large booths that surround the star of the bar: a foosball table, placed perfectly in the middle.

In the front window display, a group of Warholesque cardboard boxes featuring The Sardine logo are stacked together, created by friends at Calimucho Screen Printing. Near the entrance to the performance space (called Recess Ops), a rack full of vinyl albums and CDs, mostly from Congelliere’s independent music label, hang for sale next to a jukebox and an old school photobooth. The front counter-turned-bar top, which once served pastries and cookies, now serves more than 30 craft beers, a fair selection of wines, tamales, and yes… sardines and crackers. 

Past the bar, the Recess Ops performance space, which was the former bakery kitchen, is decked out with blue walls and various pieces of street and punk art. A disco ball hangs from the high ceiling. Near the small stage platform, Pee-wee Herman and Steve Urkel dolls hang, while the face of Minutemen’s D. Boon is stenciled in white on a floor speaker. The space is the epitome of San Pedro’s do-it-yourself ethos. 

The Recess Records store inside The Sardine. (photo: John Mattera Photography)

“We wanted to strictly play music, and we wanted a business that allowed us to do that,” says Congelliere, the 47-year-old musician (his bands include Toys That Kill and F.Y.P., among others) and founder of Recess Records, an indie record label that he started in 1988. “To me, this was the best way to promote bands and actually sustain it, because you can sell drinks. People don’t buy as many records as they do beer. But to me, it’s an actual extension of having a record label, but at a higher level because there are so many people coming in here that have no idea of the kind of music we’re doing, and they’re getting turned on to it already, so that was kind of the goal, and it’s kind of working faster than I thought.”

Congelliere was running Recess Records from a warehouse on Centre Street in San Pedro for years. In 2016, Thotz, a 41-year-old musician with bands on the label (The Arrivals, Treasure Fleet), partnered up with him on the business side to help with distribution. On occasion, they’d host concerts on the bottom floor of the warehouse, and each time they would do it, Congelliere would have the same thought: They needed to open their own venue. 

“We started having shows on the bottom floor of the warehouse, and one day Isaac is in his office with his back turned, and I’m like, ‘We should just open up our own venue,’” remembers Congelliere. “And he turns around and says, ‘Okay!’ I don’t know if it was hypothetical at the time, but it was a crazy thought. And then during the build-out, it was like, ‘What did we get ourselves into?’”

REVIVING A RELIC
The pair started their search for a space in San Pedro in late 2017. It wasn’t until they stumbled upon the old Ramona Bakery building that they thought they could make something work. 

“We looked at a lot of spaces, and this was my favorite from the second we walked in,” says Congelliere, “but I have a bias because I used to come in here [when it was Ramona Bakery] and get coffee. It was the only place to get coffee around my house.” 

They signed a lease in March 2018 and moved Recess Records and their distribution business to the back of the former bakery, while work began on the build-out for the live music space. 

“It was very overwhelming, just a lot of crazy hoops to jump through with the City of L.A., which made it really hard for us, to say the least,” says Congelliere. “It just got to a point where we couldn’t give up. We had to get another loan. We had to see this to the end. We didn’t want to do any crowdfunding or anything like that. We wanted to do it ourselves, and we’re stubborn. We have a lot of pride, I guess.”

The Sardine’s cement bar top. (photo: John Mattera Photography)

The build-out took nearly two years of intense labor and financing. Two new ADA bathrooms, new plumbing, and a new sewer had to be installed. A cement bar top was built and mounted. The huge ovens and hardware from the bakery days had to be removed. The application for the beer and wine license had to be approved. At one point, they even had their building permit revoked. It seemed like a never-ending rollercoaster of wins and losses. 

“A year and a half ago, I was saying, ‘Two weeks, we’re going to open in two weeks,’” Congelliere laughs. “Then a wise man told me, ‘Just tell everyone it’s going to be open on the first. The first chance we get.’”

That chance happened in mid-December 2019, when The Sardine finally opened its doors, with Congelliere’s band, Toys That Kill, headlining its opening night to a capacity crowd. 

THAT PEDRO TOWN
Even before they opened, news of The Sardine was spreading, and bands started reaching out, asking when they could play. Dates were filling up fast with bands, many on the Recess Records label, and by the time they opened their doors, The Sardine had bands booked nearly every night of the week. 

Mike Watt playing to a capacity crowd in February at The Sardine. (photo: Joshua Stecker)

“San Pedro has always been a town that never had a place like this,” says Congelliere. “We’ve always done shows at Harold’s or the Brew Co., and they’ve been great, but they weren’t built to do music, they were built for other reasons, and we wanted to build a place that was just for music. Touring bands always ask us [about playing San Pedro] because they hear about it, either from us or from Mike Watt. They know San Pedro, it’s like this mystical place. It has nothing to do with money or them having a super big sold out show; they just want to play, and they want to come see the town.” 

With the help of San Pedro punk rock historian and author Craig Ibarra, who helps with graphic design and promotion, The Sardine has already garnered a strong social media following that stretches far outside San Pedro’s borders.

“We recently had a band from Osaka, Japan called Paranoid Void play,” recalls Thotz. “We had an open Tuesday night, and they came in and jumped on a show, which was cool. They sounded great; the crowd was great. It felt good to see the audience appreciating the music being presented.”

Congelliere adds, “Keep in mind, this was booked eleven hours before they played, we didn’t know it was going to happen. They just needed a show because they had an open date. But seeing their reaction to the crowd’s reaction, it gave me goosebumps, because Pedro people, the community here, are super supportive of almost anything, any new business. But to see them embrace a band that they’ve never heard before… You can’t get that in other cities.”

SWIMMING UPSTREAM
Like any business in its infancy, The Sardine is still working out the kinks. Trying to figure out what works best for them, as well as for the community, is a task any local small business owner can understand. 

Cardboard boxes, designed by Calimucho Screen Printing, are displayed in the front window. (Photo by John Mattera Photography)

Because the bar is open daily, in order to better service the surrounding neighborhood, Thotz and Congelliere went door-to-door before they opened, asking what their neighbors would enjoy. Many expressed interest in coffee and pastries, so when they opened their doors, that was the first thing on the menu. They began serving their own roast, called Recess Roast Coffee, and brought in pastries made by former Ramona Bakery owner, Paul Bodnar. 

Unfortunately, the pastries didn’t fly off the shelves quickly enough, and they started to lose money. “For us, this was a blast from the past, but it just wasn’t working out,” says Congelliere. (He didn’t rule out bringing them back if demand increases as word spreads that they’re open during the day.) 

“We’d like to do some sort of food beyond what we’re doing now,” adds Thotz. “Right now, we have tamales, and sardines and crackers. We’d like to get a food cart permit where we can have tacos or hot dogs. Some better hot food.” While the partners work on expanding their menu, it’s worth noting that on many performance nights, a taco truck is located just across the street. 

When asked where they see The Sardine heading in the future, both partners are quick to say they would like to host some form of music festival. 

“I’d like to try do something like the San Pedro Shred [skateboard and music festival],” says Thotz. “Maybe even try to bring that back, though I’d like to do something bigger. I don’t know, maybe the City will let us use a parking lot. A parking lot event would be great.”

Since opening in December, their performance calendar has been booked with bands excited to play San Pedro for the first time in a legit location. Nearly every night of the week, one can walk in and (for a small cover charge) experience some sort of live music performance. Congelliere was a bit surprised with how quickly people took to the space. While he was confident they could pull it off, he was still worried that San Pedro wasn’t ready for this kind of venue. Fortunately, those fears were eased as soon as the doors opened. 

“[San Pedro] is more ready than we’d ever thought,” says Congelliere. “We thought when we were first coming up with this idea that it was just going to be the same thirty people who go to our shows all the time when we play local bars. Before we even opened, it turned into something way bigger than we thought. I was talking to people that I’ve never met before. I can’t go five minutes without people saying, ‘Pedro needed this so bad.’ We didn’t even know how much Pedro needed it until we got close to opening. And then after we opened, it was just a spillage of that, and we’re grateful, because we could’ve gone through all that hell, opened, and had nobody show up.”  spt

The Sardine/Recess Ops is located at 1101 S. Pacific Ave. For their calendar and to purchase tickets, visit sardinepedro.com. For more information on Recess Records, visit recessrecords.com. 

Joshua Stecker

Joshua Stecker is the publisher and editor-in-chief of San Pedro Today.

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