Doc’s Place: Sacramento’s first ‘drive in’ restaurant
The year 1931 was a very notable year for construction in the United States, as the Empire State Building and the George Washington Bridge across the Hudson River were completed on the East Coast and on the West Coast, Congress granted approval for the construction of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and construction was completed on Doc’s Place root beer and hot dog stand in East Sacramento.
Sure, on a nationwide level, the construction of this East Sacramento restaurant would not even appear as a small footnote. But for Sacramentans who are old enough to remember Doc’s Place at 5201 Folsom Blvd., the eatery is far from a small footnote in Sacramento history.
First area drive in
East Sacramento native Gloria (DaPrato) Tomei, for instance, responded with an upbeat, reminiscent tone to her voice when recently asked about her memories of Doc’s Place.
“(Doc’s Place) was an institution,” Tomei said. “It was (locally) famous. I first went there with my parents (Maria and Bautista DaPrato) in the late 1930s. (Doc’s) was known all over East Sacramento. But let’s face it, (Doc’s) was the only place back then. There were no drive-ins at that time. That was probably the very first drive-in (in Sacramento). We would just walk up to the window and order. It was something like five cents for the hot dog and 10 cents for the root beer. In the evenings, we used to walk over from 48th Street to Doc’s to have a hot dog and root beer floats. I remember that all of the kids on 48th Street went there, the Paolis, the Del Chiaros, the Baruffaldis, the Gaddis, we all did.”
Tomei said that she also remembers the business’s owner, James Robert “Doc” Campbell, and his wife, Paulette, and their daughter, Mildred Arlette Campbell (now Arlette Nelson, a resident of Idaho).
A family business“I went to school with the owner’s daughter from kindergarten on up,” Tomei said. “Doc, himself, was a tall, skinny, very friendly man and Mrs. Campbell was a beautiful woman. Mildred always told me when we were in school that her mother was a stand-in for the movie star, Kay Francis.”
Doc’s son, James Robert Campbell, Jr., who goes by the name “Jim” or “Jimmy,” said that this statement could possibly be true, because she did resemble Francis.
“I do remember people talking about how she resembled (Francis), but I can’t confirm the point that she was actually a stand-in for (Francis),” Jim said. “It may have been true, but then again, it could have been that people said that she could have been a stand-in for Francis and then the word eventually got around that she was a stand-in.”
Jim said that his father, who was born in Jamestown, Penn. in 1889, began working long before he opened Doc’s Place.
“My father left home when he was very young – probably 13 years old or so – and just hustled on the road,” Jim said. “He just freelanced around and later joined the Army. That’s where he met my mother, over in Europe. He met her in Nice, France and then later went back and got her.”
Jim said that to the best of his knowledge his parents were married in France in 1927.
Jim added that it was also around this time that his father, who was residing in Sacramento, was working at an eatery in the West End section of the city.
“My father worked for a guy down on Front Street,” Jim said. “(The business) was called Big Al’s – no, actually, it was called Big Jim’s – and that guy sold hot dogs and root beer. My dad, more or less, got the idea from him.”
By 1930, Doc opened his own root beer and hot dog business on the bottom floor of a two-story building that was owned by a pair of sisters, named Emma and Rose Elliott, at 1600 L St.
Homemade root beer
Jim said that his father, in order to make his root beer, would purchase large quantities of sugar from the wholesale part of the Arata Bros. grocery business.
It was also during 1930 that the unique construction of Doc’s Place began, as an old house that Jim said had been used as a laundry business was cut in half and half of the house that was located in a nearby field was moved closer to Folsom Boulevard, which was along the route of the old Highway 50.
During the construction of Doc’s Place, much of the partial house structure, which Jim said was built sometime in the 1920s, was stripped away and replaced with new features. This construction included the placement of the marquee around the old structure’s gable roof.
Once Doc’s Place was ready for business, Joe Pesce, who was Doc’s good friend and his children’s godfather, sold his 1922 home alongside the new eatery to Doc, so that Doc and his family could live nearby Doc’s Place.
Jim said that Doc’s Place was an instant success and continued to be successful throughout its existence.
Baseball and hot dogs
He added that because baseball was so popular in Sacramento during the 1930s, many baseball players of this era would often place their orders in advance.
“These guys were playing (baseball) all the way from Jackson to Plymouth to Placerville and all around through the foothills and they would call my dad on the phone when they were leaving up there, telling him what time they’d be here and how many hot dogs and root beers they wanted,” Jim said.
Other early customers of Doc’s Place were local farmers and students of the original Kit Carson Junior High School at 1300 54th Street.
As an eatery with no inside accommodations, Doc’s Place featured eight windows, where the business’s guests would walk up and place their orders.
Jim said that because his father’s business included a parking area, Doc’s Place was undoubtedly the first drive-in restaurant in the capital city.
Doc, who received this nickname due to the fact that he was also locally renowned for offering special remedies for illnesses, continued operating Doc’s Place for an entire decade, Jim explained.
“My father figured that he would retire (in 1941), since he had paid off everything and had made enough money and developed enough properties to take care of himself and his family for the rest of his life,” Jim said.
With this decision, Doc, who by then owned properties and buildings on all four corners of 52nd Street and Folsom Boulevard, sold his business to Claude S. Inman, who resided at 1472 52nd St.
Throughout the years, the business continued to prosper as Doc’s Place – with the exception of one year when its name was briefly changed – under the direction of its latter owners, John J. Corsiglia (mid-1940s), Nicholas Bruno (late 1940s), George E. Lampman (1952 to about 1956), Frank P. Carlino (operated as Frank’s Restaurant in 1957) and Doc’s son, Jim (1959-60).
Doc’s Place was closed by Jim in 1960, ending the business’s nearly 30-year reign as one of the city’s more popular eateries.
Returning to its earliest roots, the structure was used as a laundry business, Coin-O-Matic Laundromat, from 1963 to 1970.
After sitting vacant for a year, Holcomb’s Garden Café, owned by Kenny and Ray Holcomb, opened in 1972, followed by the Cement Shoe Italian restaurant in about 1974.
The Sub Shack restaurant, which was opened at this location by Ralph Neel in 1976, is today operated as The Shack by its owner, Gary Sleppy, who purchased the business in May 2005.
Jim, who continues to lives in East Sacramento with his wife, Gwyn, said that he is thankful for his father’s accomplishments and appreciates what he did for his family and the community.
When asked how he would summarize his family’s contributions to the East Sacramento area, Jim said, “What I would like to say is ‘Mom, Dad, thanks so much for everything you’ve given us.’”