Eppie Johnson sits in his former office at the Imperial 400 Motel – Econo Lodge as of Oct. 30, 2013 – at 30th and N streets. Photo courtesy of Eppie Johnson
After more than a century of serving the public, East Lawn Memorial Park recently reached a particular milestone with its 100,000th interment – that of Eppaminondas George “Eppie” Johnson, who gained much notoriety for his chain of Eppie’s restaurants, and who founded one of the city’s better known annual events, Eppie’s Great Race.
In speaking about the fact that his late father became the 100,000th person to be interred at the cemetery, which was established in October 1904, George Eppaminondas Johnson II said, “First of all, it blows my mind that so many people are (interred) there. I thought that was remarkable. Probably from the standpoint that it’s like, yet again, it’s sort of another achievement, you know, notch in the wall for my dad. It’s obviously sheer, absolute luck that it happened to be him (who became the 100,000th interment). He would have loved that (trivial fact). He would have told everybody about it, and he probably is (telling everybody), just upstairs. So, I just think that’s sort of neat. It’s just part of who he was. If it was going to happen to anybody, it would happen to him, so he could brag about it.”
George II, his sister, Lisa (Johnson) Mangels, and many other people who knew Eppie well recognized him as a charismatic character who enjoyed interacting with others.
As an example of his father’s showmanship and what he referred to as a “generously sized ego,” George II explained part of the reason why his father maintained his Eppie’s restaurants for so many years.
“For (Eppie), one of the things that kept him from selling the restaurants and had him hang on to them longer than he probably should have was (the restaurants) were him,” George II said. “It was his identity. His name was up in lights, so to speak, with all these signs or whatever.”
And Eppie’s own physical identity was great, as well, as he attracted attention for his colorful, flashy clothing; thick, wavy hair; stylish facial hair; blue eyes; and outgoing demeanor for many years.
In his latter years, Eppie was still a man who never shied away from the limelight.
Long before Eppie became a well known figure in the Sacramento area, he had spent many years living on the East Coast.
Eppie’s life began on May 7, 1928, when he was born to his parents, George Eppaminondas Johnson I (1898-1979) and Anastasia “Fotini” (Mousmoules) Johnson (1904-1962). He was raised in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, N.Y. and had one sibling, Paula (Johnson) Alexander (1925-2000).
Eppie’s parents divorced in the 1940s, and Eppie was raised by his mother, who brought income to her family through her work in a millinery shop.
Eppie’s father, who was a native of Broussa, Turkey, relocated to Reno and he later moved to Sacramento.
George I was a well-known businessman, who gained much notoriety in Sacramento through his Del Prado Restaurant, which was located at 5500 Stockton Blvd. He was also recognized in other circles, as he was an essential member of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in Sacramento and a nationally-known figure in Democratic politics.
While growing up in Astoria, Eppie was involved in lifeguarding and in the Boy Scouts. He eventually became a Life Scout, which is one rank below Eagle Scout, the program’s highest attainable rank.
An early advertisement for Eppie’s Coffee Shop shows an image of Eppie Johnson with his goatee look, which he began to sport in 1960, four years before the opening of his first restaurant. Photo courtesy of the Lance Armstrong Collection
Eppie later attended New York University, and the University of Nevada, Reno, where he was active in the ROTC. And following his graduation from the latter named institution, he served in the Army.
In 1950, Eppie moved to Sacramento to assist his father at Del Prado Restaurant.
Last week, George II spoke about the moment that led to his father’s solo venture in the restaurant field.
“After my dad got fired for the second time by his dad, that’s when my dad said, ‘Forget this, I’m going off on my own.’ His father said, ‘You’ll never make it on your own without my help.’ And so, of course, that fueled the fire even more to say, ‘I’m going to prove you wrong.’”
Eppie ultimately established his own catering business, and he catered to many functions, including store openings on the K Street Mall.
In 1964, Eppie made a major career move when he opened Eppie’s Restaurant and Coffee Shop at 3001 N St., where an IHOP restaurant now operates.
From that point, Eppie began establishing other Eppie’s locations, including sites in Las Vegas, Cameron Park, Turlock and other Sacramento area locations such as 6341 Florin Road, 4600 Madison Ave., 2525 Watt Ave. and 4657 West Capitol Ave.
Adding to his accomplishments with Eppie’s restaurants, Eppie also had several restaurants, called Eppaminondas. These restaurants, which opened in the late 1970s, were located at Cal Expo, in Rancho Cordova and in Stockton.
Eppie, who was married to Nancy C. Johnson for 29 years before their marriage ended in divorce in about 1983, also purchased tennis clubs in Davis and in the south area at 6000 South Land Park Drive.
Although Eppie no longer owned any restaurants or tennis clubs at the time of his death, the old West Sacramento Eppie’s continues to operate under a different ownership that has no association with the Johnson family.
As for his aforementioned founding of Eppie’s Great Race, George II said, “How Eppie’s Great Race came to be was (Eppie) and a good friend of his who happened to be a K2 ski rep were skiing. They were chitchatting and (the friend) said, ‘You know, Eppie, we ought to do a triathlon.’ (Eppie) said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said, ‘We ought to ski from the top of Alpine Meadows down to the bottom, run out to the Truckee River and kayak down the Truckee River into Truckee.’ My dad said, ‘That sounds like a great idea, but I don’t have any restaurants up in Tahoe.’ So, that planted the seed and two or three weeks later, my dad thought, ‘Aha, I know what we can do.’ He was a promotion guy and he wanted to promote his restaurants. He said, ‘We’ll start out at the Eppaminondas – which is now Hooters – at Zinfandel (Drive) and (Highway) 50 (in Rancho Cordova), winds through Rancho Cordova and Sacramento to wind up at the Eppie’s – which is now the Outback Steakhouse – on Howe Avenue. So, that is where the idea was born.”
Eventually, the race, which originally supported the Aquarian Effort (today’s WellSpace Health), was relocated to the American River Parkway.
The nonprofit race, which is billed as “The World’s Oldest Triathlon” and is recognized as the nation’s largest paddling event, celebrated its 40th anniversary this year.
It consists of a 5.82-mile running stage, a 12.5-mile bicycle stage and a 6.35-mile kayaking stage.
The current primary benefactor of the event is Sacramento County Therapeutic Recreation Services. The race has raised more than $1 million for that organization.
Eppie passed away at the age of 85 on Sept. 16 and was interred at East Lawn Memorial Park eight days later.
In understanding both the importance of East Lawn, “which stands as a guardian of history from generation to generation by preserving individual, family and community heritage,” and the impact Eppie made on the community, East Lawn President Alan Fisher said, “It may well be fitting that the person with this household name in Sacramento became our 100,000th interment at East Lawn Memorial Park.”