From the 1930s to the 1960s, the Technical Porcelain and Chinaware Company produced dishes for restaurants all over the Bay Area. While the El Cerrito based factory closed in 1968, this durable dishware lives on as an iconic East Bay collectible with an unexpected and impassioned cult following.
Sandi Genser-Maack is telling me about the moment she and her husband Lynn struck gold at an antique shop.
“Way down low, in a cabinet where you could hardly see were two Doggie Diner mugs!” Sandi says. “We bought them, and we were so excited we were quivering.”
You’re probably thinking: Mugs? So what?
But, these aren’t ordinary mugs. They’re TEPCO mugs, and they’re pieces of East Bay history.
At one time, TEPCO dishware were everywhere. You could find TEPCO at the local doughnut shop — and the local country club.
Even the United States Army and Navy used TEPCO dishes on their ships and in their mess halls.
At first glance, these dishes seem like nothing special. They’re the types of plates you’d find in a diner — heavy, ceramic, a little glossy.
But they’re also really meaningful to a lot of people.
Sandi and Lynn are in their their 60s, and are TEPCO royalty. For years, the couple organized the TEPCO fan club. Every two months, the club would get together to show off their own personal collections. They even sent out a newsletter called the TEPCO Tribune to their 60 club members; dues to join were $5 per year.
Sandi and Lynn have thousands of pieces of TEPCO. “We were born collecting,” Sandi says.
They have so much TEPCO that they had to buy an outdoor shed to store all the dishes in. Their house was getting cramped with boxes and bags of TEPCO covering the floor. Sandi and Lynn love TEPCO partly because it was so easy to find.
“You could find it at rummage sales on the corner for nothing,” Lynn says.
But they also love TEPCO dishes because of the wild designs. The plates and bowls are often covered in wacky patterns. Illustrations of bamboo, leaves, wagon wheels, flowers, and pagodas decorate the plates. They’re beautiful in a kind of ... ugly way.
“The plates — they’ve got dings and scratches and knots, and the quality is very bad. But we love them,” Sandi says.
A few weeks after we first met, I emailed Sandi to ask if she wanted to go to an antiques fair with me. We could search for TEPCO together.
She’d always been quick to get back to me, especially when talking about TEPCO, but I kept checking my email, and ... nothing.
Finally, I got an email newsletter from the mayor. Sandi, a board member of almost every committee in town, had died from unexpected heart complications.
I was shocked. She was bright and reliable — the kind of person you didn’t think would ever die. Just weeks earlier, she had been so alive, laughing and talking too loud into my microphone.
Her memorial was a few weeks later at a country club and everyone came out. It was a celebration. Some of her friends wanted to dress like her, so they wore matching, sparkly, sequined tops. Everyone was talking about Sandi’s TEPCO collection — such as Steve, her coworker.
“I never got to see her famous TEPCO collection,” Steve says. “In fact I told her joke that I was gonna pack myself into a box and be delivered on her step, and she would have to open it, and I'd have to see all the TEPCO dishes.”
On my way out of the memorial, I heard some of Sandi’s friends mention they were going to TEPCO Beach to commemorate her life.
TEPCO Beach is a stretch of shoreline on Point Isabel, in Richmond where the TEPCO factory used to dump their broken plates.
Walk on TEPCO beach, and you hear the crunch of thousands of shattered plates and bowls under your feet. The porcelain shards are piled in a thick layer on top of the sand, mixed with dried seaweed and beach brush.
Most are white, but if you crouch down, you can find special treasures; patterned pieces, and handles broken off from teacups.
TEPCO dishes were made by hand, and I got in touch with Frank Storno, the last living TEPCO factory worker. I wanted to ask him about life at the factory.
What was it like, to make the plates and cups everyone in his community used? Frank invited me up to the Veterans Home in Yountville to conduct the interview.
But, the day before the interview, I got a call.
Even though, that morning, he was lucid, and telling stories, Frank Storno had died. He was 101 years old.
Now, with both Frank and Sandi gone, Lynn’s TEPCO collection really is kind of the last monument to the factory, to the dishes people like Frank had handmade.
Three months after Sandi’s death, Lynn considers what the legacy of his collection might be.
“We have no idea what we’re going to do with all this stuff. They’re probably not going to be important to somebody else when I’m gone,” he says.
But, they’re important to me. I’ve started collecting TEPCO now.
I’ve had lots of opportunities to buy TEPCO dishes in the past few months ... they’re pretty easy to find at flea markets in California. But, I think it’s more fun to see TEPCO dishes in use, in the wild.
Most restaurants don’t use them anymore. But, every so often, I’ll sit down to eat, usually at a diner, and think I see a TEPCO plate.
I now flip dishes over, to see if they have a TEPCO stamp on the back.
They rarely do.
But, I’ll keep flipping dishes over, probably for the rest of my life. Because one day, it might be a TEPCO plate.
And that would be really nice.