For thirty-five years, Sunnyside had a well-loved and well-patronized restaurant at the corner of Monterey Boulevard and Foerster Street, famous for its opinionated but kind-hearted owner, Bruno Cappa (1911-1984). Bruno’s Creamery Fountain Restaurant counted among its many customers a few of the city’s minor luminaries, but mostly it was a favorite of locals and kids. The place was famous for serving curly fries, forty years before they were on the menus of fast-food chains. Although he was a bit gruff, Bruno is fondly remembered to this day by many people who ate there or just hung out.
The restaurant was an unpretentious place, a narrow space with a counter on the right and pinball machines in the back. Along the left wall were news racks that also held the comic books that were prized as free reading material by local kids. As the years passed, the shop acquired a grill and a donut fryer, along with the special machine for producing his famed curly fries. Behind the counter there were racks with small items like bromo-seltzer and sweets, and on the walls (depending on the décor that year) there were small posters for soda or ice cream.
Bruno and his wife Eva stood behind the long counter—he took your order for a burger, and she cooked it up. They both worked hard, putting in 16- or 17-hour days, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Eva was always quiet, but Bruno often gave unasked-for, if well-intended, advice—like telling an unemployed customer to get a job and feed his family. But then Bruno would send him on his way after a meal with a bag of groceries—under that rude exterior he had a big heart.
Kids came in to play the pinball machines in back, and read the comic books Bruno had for sale. Longtime Sunnyside Frank Koehler recalls that Bruno would say ” ‘Hey, you guys, if you want to read them, you gotta buy ’em’—but since we were regulars, Bruno never enforced the ‘you gotta buy ’em’ rule….But he’d always mention the rule before he ignored it.”
Bruno kept tabs on regulars. One person told me about how if Bruno hadn’t seen you for a while, he would send someone around to your house to make sure you were okay.
“Bruno was truly a unique individual and quite a character.”
“Bruno was a pain in the neck!”
Bruno served all the usual soda fountain items, ice cream sundaes, banana splits, and milkshakes, along with hamburgers and donuts that he made himself. But he was most famous for curly fries. As someone recently reminisced on a Facebook page:
“I dream of those fries!”
They came in a greasy brown paper bag. For kids from the nearby Sunnyside School, they were a treasured indulgence, sure to net you new friends if you returned to school after venturing off the grounds at lunch to buy a bag. (I dig deeply into the history of the curly fry below.)
Bruno’s was mostly a spot for locals, especially kids in search of an afterschool treat and a comic book. Other customers included seniors and singles who might have little other regular human contact than Bruno’s curmudgeonly conversation. “Many neighborhood people ate there almost every day especially the widowers and single people,” recalls his daughter-in-law Marilyn Cappa Kennedy.
But Bruno also counted among his patrons some well-known people. Politician John Burton, active in San Francisco from the 1960s onward, often brought his daughter to Bruno’s for lunch. In the 1960s, before he was famous, Carlos Santana was a loyal customer; after his band released their first album in late 1969, he stopped by Bruno’s place to bring him a copy of it.
When Ann Marie Garvin was a little girl growing up in Sunnyside in the 1940s, and her mother Margaret forgot to pack her a lunch, she knew she could go to Bruno’s instead. Before the lunch hour rolled around, Margaret would call Bruno and tell him that when Ann Marie came in for her meal, to just give her the first thing she asked for and wait till she’d eaten that before serving her more. This was because Ann Marie was apt to plop down on a stool and, free from parental supervision, say “Give me a banana split and a hamburger and fries and a milkshake and some soda and – ”
In an era when San Francisco wasn’t yet the deep-blue city it is now, Bruno was squarely in the Democratic camp; during election seasons he would put up a big sign in the window with different prices for a cup of coffee based on the customer’s political party—higher for Republicans, of course. In 1960, this partisan practice earned him a mention in Dick Nolan’s “The City” column in the Examiner.
When Bruno first took over the business in 1939, this spot had been a soda fountain since the building was constructed in 1924. In 1927 a Sunnysider named Don DeLauer quit his job as a foreman at the Ford Motor Company to run the place, calling it DeLauer’s Sweet Shop.
The sweet shop passed through a few other hands in the 1930s, until Bruno took it over in 1939. Initially he called it “Monterey Sweet Shop,” which might well have been its name for several years beforehand. During the next several years, he sold mostly ice cream and soda fountain treats. Here’s the menu from then.
Sometime in the next ten years, he renamed the place “Bruno’s Creamery.” The use of the name ‘creamery’ for a place that sold ice cream treats, as opposed to for a milk-processing business, took off in the late 1920s. Creamery restaurants were found all over the city, such as the West Portal Creamery or the Kieser Creamery on Irving. It’s a sweet-sounding name that is still in use. In our time, The Creamery, a South of Market establishment famed for being the locale for high-tech deals, is currently embroiled in controversy as it tries to relocate to the Mission.
So successful was Bruno’s Creamery that in 1948 when a couple named Taft took over the coffee shop up the street at 717 Monterey (now Big Joe’s), they renamed it the Sunnyside Creamery. Unfortunately they did not make a go of it competing against Bruno’s, and soon sold the place to another owner, who reverted the name to ‘coffee shop’ once again.
During the 1940s, Bruno’s establishment was listed in the San Francisco directories classified under “Confectionary and Ice Cream” – under his own name and not the name of the shop. Then, about 1950, he began to list it as a restaurant in the directory—a place that served more than just ice cream confections and soda. He may have been serving burgers, fries, and other lunchroom-type foods before this, but I don’t have a source to confirm this—as happens so often for ephemeral neighborhood history.
So from about 1950 onward, the menu was set—100% pure greasy-spoon-plus-soda-fountain.
Don Cohn, whose family lived down the street recalls:
“Bruno’s was our Happy Days place.”
Bruno was also known for his missing fingers, which he had lost while working in a lumber mill in his late teens. He didn’t like to discuss the matter. One patron recalls asking him what happened, and Bruno replied menacingly that he had once asked too many questions and it had been bitten off.
That Bruno did not make much of his condition is attested to by the fact that some people I’ve talked to remember one missing finger, and some remember two. Bruno’s draft card from 1940 says clearly “Two middle fingers missing.” One of Bruno’s customers recalled: “We would tease him, and he would give you the finger, except his middle finger was cut off at the first knuckle….He was a great guy!” Flipping off a customer isn’t usually a good idea, but with an incomplete digit it’s surprising and funny instead.
Unexpectedly, the ceiling in Bruno’s place was a focus of some attention. Youthful patrons would launch their damp paper straw covers upward, blowing them off the straw with some force, presumably when Bruno’s back was turned. These collected over the months as a kind of stalactite forest of paper wisps, but then were removed during Bruno’s yearly cleaning. Every August, Bruno put a sign in the window, “Closed for Redecorating.” And then every September he would re-open, with little changed in the shop (but presumably he and Eva were well rested).
One patron remembers one particular décor update, however. Brad McMillan recalled on Facebook recently “I remember when Bruno painted the ceiling in three sections of brown, white, and pink to represent Neapolitan ice cream.”
Bruno’s Family Life
Bruno Cappa was baptized Bruno Aloysius Capparuccini in Montréal Canada, in 1911, the first child of Aniceto Capparuccini, who had immigrated from Amandola, Italy, and Maria Natali, who had immigrated from Sassoferrato, Italy—both towns in the Marche region. In 1917, the family entered the US from Vancouver BC, but it wasn’t until 1925 that Aniceto applied for US citizenship. In a naturalization document in 1927, he noted that the family name had been changed to Cappa.
Bruno grew up in Aberdeen, Washington, a small town where his father was a watchman at a lumber mill. As a child, he worked delivering newspapers for the Daily World. Here is a group photo of the army of paper boys in the town.
As a young man, Bruno was a boxer; two matches in the early 1930s have been recorded in an online archive: in 1933, Bruno suffered a defeat at the hands of Young Roberts in a match that marked both their debuts; the next year he won against Alvie Quinlan, a more experienced boxer. I did not find any other bouts for Bruno. Working in a lumber mill at this time was how he lost two fingers, which may have spelled the end of his career as a boxer.
In Aberdeen, Bruno married Eva Beaulieu, the daughter of a lumber mill worker who had emigrated from French Canada. About 1939, the Cappas moved to San Francisco, settling in Sunnyside and starting the restaurant. In February 1940 their first and only child, Robert Bruno Cappa, was born. The family first lived at 242 Joost Avenue, then at 702 Foerster Street, at the edge of the empty lots that would later be built as Sunnyside Playground. In the mid-1940s they lived at 19 Melrose Avenue for a few years. Then finally they settled into the house at 494 Mangels Avenue, where they lived until Bruno retired.
Bruno had wanted his son to take over the family business, but Bob had other ambitions. After graduating from Riordan High School and University of San Francisco with a Bachelor of Science, Bob moved to the East Bay to work in adult and juvenile probation. Bob passed away in 2009, survived by his wife Marilyn, two children, and seven grandchildren.
The End of the Creamery
In 1973, Bruno was in his early sixties, and it was time to retire. He sold the business to Richard Ballesteros, and it was called Rick’s Creamery for another five years, although the owner’s name in the directory was listed as Mary Bartholomew during those years.
These photos were taken at the end, as Bruno was moving out.
In 1978, the shop became a pizzeria, going by the name Julio’s Monterey Pizza for many years. Later it was run by a man named Glenio Silva, who was convicted of employing illegal immigrants at the Monterey shop as well as an East Bay location. More recently, about seven years ago, the restaurant was renamed Monterey Pizza and Asian Zap, run by Vaen Dogtanyong, and it has become a quite popular local spot.
Eva passed away in 1981, and Bruno in 1984. But in the hearts of many customers, the Cappas will live on.
(As well, Bruno’s Creamery is a stop on my Midcentury Monterey Boulevard history walk, so the Cappas will remain a part of the neighborhood’s history for some time to come.)
The Slightly Twisted History of the Curly-Q Fry
Bruno was justly proud of his special machine that produced curly fries; it was his signature dish—or rather his signature grease-soaked bag, which is how they went out the door in customers’ hands. He was actually afraid that someone might steal the machine he used to make them. They were especially popular with students from nearby Sunnyside School. If someone broke the rules to go off the grounds to snag a bag during the lunch period, upon their return the tell-tale grease-spotted bag gave them away—a guarantee of being besieged by other kids wanting a taste—and a giveaway that might make you a target of the eagle-eyed principal, Miss Gerstenberg, well known for never missing any misbehavior.
The history of French fries cut in spirals turns out to hold some interesting stories. Although Arby’s made them well known by introducing them to their chain of restaurants in 1988 as “Curly-Q fries”, the origin of this culinary phenomenon actually goes back to the late 1930s.
First produced in 1938 by a restaurant owner named Ralph A Stephens in Oklahoma City, they were a complete novelty that needed special equipment to cut the spirals. Stephens gave them a name—“Suzi-Q” potatoes—and registered it as a trademark in 1940. When Works Progress Administration Federal Writers’ Project took on the subject of food in America in the early 1940s, this new food was documented by writer Lillie Duncan, who wrote:
“The famous Suzi-Q potatoes originated in Oklahoma City in 1938. The method was worked out by Ralph A Stephens, owner of Dolores Restaurant and Drive-in. They are now being served in 700 different places, in practically every state in the Union, including the Stork Club in New York City. Café and restaurant operators from San Francisco, from Miami to Boston, and from New Orleans to Montreal are serving these delicious Suzi-Q potatoes. The cutting machine, made of stainless steel, cuts potatoes in a spiral shape; they are fired in deep fat to a gold brown.” 
Suzi-Q Comes to California
Ralph and Amanda Stephens had been running restaurants all over the US since the 1920s, and had ambitions beyond Oklahoma City.
They brought the Suzi-Q potatoes to Los Angeles, opening another Dolores Drive-in on the Sunset strip in 1945 (future location of the famous Tower Records store). It was a place where the gossip columnists noted various Hollywood stars dining on Stephens’ fare, like Hedy Lamarr, spotted eating BBQ spare ribs in her car. Fried shrimp was a specialty, served with Suzi-Q potatoes of course.
Later The Stephens’ opened more Dolores Drive-ins in Beverly Hills and Culver City. Stephens’ restaurant career was so long and exciting that a review of his many accomplishments in a business feature in the 1960s did not even mention his special French fries.
I think the presence of the Stephens’ restaurants in Los Angeles, all serving Suzi-Qs, suggests that it was around the late 1940s or early 1950s that Bruno bought his special Suzi-Q potato cutter machine, and started serving them at his place.
Ralph Stephens’ name for the new style of fries—“curly-cue” becoming “Suzi-Q”—was lifted from a dance step invented in Harlem in 1936—an urban fact that isn’t likely to have been common knowledge amongst the Midwest munchers of his trademarked product. The dance move, reputedly invented at the Savoy Ballroom, is best summarized as step-and-twist, step-and-twist; it is still a common step, from the Lindy Hop to Hip Hop. It isn’t trademarked of course, and so it goes under any spelling variation of the name, such as Suzie-Q, Suzy-Q, Susie-Q, and sometimes just Suzie.
Naming the spiraled and fried potatoes for a dance move that rotates the hips, legs, and feet was a natural for the time—half culinary inspiration, half cultural appropriation.
This new dance invention was quickly followed by song about it the same year, by Lil Hardin Armstrong and her orchestra, “Doin’ The Suzie Q” (1936).
If the sheer breadth and number of newspaper mentions of the Suzy-Q step in those years is anything to go by, it was a full-fledged dance craze. It was quickly taken up by white teenagers all over the US, as part of a group dance called The Big Apple, which was also snagged from African American culture then.
Here’s a bit of TV from the late 1950s showing the difference between a miserable approximation of the Suzy-Q step, which is then compared to the full-fledged energetic version; “Meanwhile, back at the Savoy, we get the original!”
“Suzy-Q” is a name that has had a long run in pop culture. In 1956 Dale Hawkins wrote “Susie Q”, a soulful rockabilly tune with an unforgettably sweet guitar lick, later famously covered by Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1968 (who spelled it with a Z). (Listen to the Dale Hawkins original demo here.) Singer-songwriter Suzi Quatro used “Suzi Q” to name an album in 1990, and a movie about herself in 2019. And pop music aside, potatoes weren’t the only food to get the name; in 1961 Hostess Brand introduced “Suzy Q’s”, a snack cake.
The association of the name Suzy-Q with the curly fry is now almost completely defunct.
After Stephens introduced them in 1938, these novelty helix-shaped French fries under the name Suzi-Q had a real presence in small-time restaurants the Midwest, from Texas to Minnesota, for decades to come. Although a few places in California acquired the machines and advertised that they served Suzi-Qs, it wasn’t quite as big a phenomenon in the West. So when Bruno got his fancy hand-cranked machine, when he was transitioning from a soda fountain to a restaurant, it was something uncommon in San Francisco—a real novelty.
Midwesterners coming to California would likely know what they were already. As late as 2012, someone wrote to the LA Weekly pleading to be informed as to where in Los Angeles they could find what they fondly remembered from Missouri:
“I would like…a ‘brick’ of Susie-Q French fries. I don’t want any of these wimpy curly fries people talk about, looking like lost potato eyelashes on the plate. None of this fancy seasoning like the mass-produced purveyors of fast food passed off as Susie-Qs. I want a solid mass of curled up, fried potatoes served in one hunk of greasy goodness like I can get back in Nevada, MO.”
The letter-writer was firmly rebuked for entertaining such a craving in “the single greatest eating city in the world,” although the columnist then went on to recommend various venues that could provide an approximation.
The Potato-Cutting Machines
Ralph Stephens had a company to sell machines that produced the spiral cuts, at least through the 1940s. He sold a machine, but he did not patent one. Someone else did patent a device in 1939, although I don’t know if this is the type that Stephens sold. Another type was patented in 1950, which specifically described its use to produce “shoestring potatoes.” Both of these devices were hand-operated, clamped to the work surface, requiring more fussy labor than some kitchens might have to spare for a side dish. Finally in 1976 a motorized machine was patented, signaling the dawn of the era of the widespread curly fry.
This was too late for Bruno, as he had retired two years before. Yet his modest hand-cranked machine was all he ever needed to create a minor sensation and make a place for himself in local history—and the hearts of local kids (and others).
A Curl By Any Other Name…
I don’t know whether Bruno Cappa ever called the curly fries that he served at his Creamery Fountain Restaurant “Suzi-Q Potatoes”; the many people I’ve spoken to over the years who ate there have all referred to them as “curly fries.” Bruno was not a pretentious man.
Whatever name he called them, fancy or not, everyone knew what they were, and that Bruno’s Creamery Fountain Restaurant was the place to get them.
My heartfelt gratitude to all the people who have shared their stories about Bruno and his restaurant over the years, making this post possible, most especially Marilyn Cappa Kennedy. Thank you to: Don Cohn, Charles Versaggi, Marty Hackett, Jack Maita, Greg Gaar, Greg Adams, George Lopez, Frank Koehler, and Nicole Rousey, and others whose names I did not write down.
Also the members of the San Francisco Remembered Facebook group who shared recollections: Edd Altieri, Mark Bryan, Franchesca Bella Scalise, John Casciani, Ron Bendorff, Jack Modica, Woody Shields, Tami Scalise-Halton, and Brad McMillan. https://www.facebook.com/groups/remembered/
Also the Outsidelands.org thread about Bruno’s from a few years back. https://www.outsidelands.org/cgi-bin/mboard/stories2/thread.cgi?1206,0
- Marilyn Cappa Kennedy, Bruno’s daughter-in-law, posting on an Outsidelands.org discussion board. https://www.outsidelands.org/cgi-bin/mboard/stories2/thread.cgi?1206,1 Accessed 9 Jun 2021. ↑
- Don Cohn, phone conversation, 22 Jan 2019. The Cohn family lived on Monterey near Edna. ↑
- As per information in the San Francisco Directories. The DeLauers lived at 324 Staples Avenue. ↑
- In October 1940 Bruno Cappa filled out his draft card, saying that his employer was “Monterey Sweet Shop” 599 Monterey. Accessed through Ancestry.com. ↑
- I am surmising about what he served, given that the place was listed in the classifeds under “Confectionary and Ice Cream” until 1952, when Bruno changed it to “Restaurant.” ↑
- My sincerest thanks to Bruno’s daughter-in-law Marilyn Cappa Kennedy for generously sharing photos and famly stories. Phone conversation, 26 March 2021. ↑
- Documents relating to the Cappa family immigration and naturalization [signing up for an account with FamilySearch.org is FREE]: //// 1903 Aniceto’s arrival: “Massachusetts, Boston Passenger Lists Index, 1899-1940,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:Q2WC-BTZC : 20 February 2021), Anicito Capparuccini, 1903; citing T521, Index to Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at Boston, Massachusetts, January 1, 1902-June 30, 1906., NARA microfilm publications T790, T617, and T521 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, publication year); FHL microfilm 1,324,974. //// 1917 family immigration: “Vermont, St. Albans Canadian Border Crossings, 1895-1954,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QS7-99DH-JYNR?cc=2185163&wc=3KM8-SPD%3A1018492201%2C1018624001 : 2 June 2015), (M1464) Manifests of Passengers Arriving in the St. Albans, VT, District through Canadian Pacific and Atlantic Ports, 1895-1954 > Roll 335, vol 429-430, Apr 1917 > image 505 of 1203; citing NARA microfilm publications M1461, M1463, M1464, and M1465 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.). //// 1920 Declaration of Intention: “Washington, County Naturalization Records, 1850-1982,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33S7-95XH-3MM?cc=1932554&wc=M6J6-SNL%3A229273401%2C229408901 : 7 August 2020), Grays Harbor > Declaration of intention 1920 vol 11 no 3561-3700 > image 65 of 200; Washington State Archives, Bellevue. //// 1927 Petition: “Washington, County Naturalization Records, 1850-1982,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33S7-95XH-6GG?cc=1932554&wc=M6J6-L6X%3A229273401%2C229713701 : 9 January 2020), Grays Harbor > Petition records 1927 vol 10 no 2218-2300 > image 264 of 423; Washington State Archives, Bellevue. ///// 1927 Petition: “Washington, County Naturalization Records, 1850-1982,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-G5XH-6L5?cc=1932554&wc=M6J6-L6X%3A229273401%2C229713701 : 9 January 2020), Grays Harbor > Petition records 1927 vol 10 no 2218-2300 > image 259 of 423; Washington State Archives, Bellevue. ↑
- According to the 1930 US Census for the Cappa family. “United States Census, 1930,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-GRZN-WGS?cc=1810731&wc=QZFW-6HR%3A648803901%2C649353101%2C649093001%2C1589282323 : 8 December 2015), Washington > Grays Harbor > Aberdeen > ED 10 > image 11 of 30; citing NARA microfilm publication T626 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 2002). ↑
- According to the 1920 US Census for the Beaulieu family: “United States Census, 1920”, database with images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MHFY-4DP : 4 February 2021), Eva Beaulieu in entry for Sifroid Beanlien, 1920.The 1930 US Census for the Beaulieu family: “United States Census, 1930,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:XCST-M3P : accessed 11 June 2021), Eva Beaulieu in household of Sifroid Beaulieu, Montesano, Grays Harbor, Washington, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) ED 50, sheet 5B, line 78, family 138, NARA microfilm publication T626 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 2002), roll 2488; FHL microfilm 2,342,222. ↑
- The story about Bruno’s desire for Bob to continue the family business comes from Marilyn Cappa Kennedy, phone conversation, 26 Mar 2021. Other biographical information from Robert Cappa’s obituary: Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek CA), 14 Nov 2009. ↑
- Marilyn Cappa Kennedy, phone conversation, 26 Mar 2021. ↑
- According to a history of the Arby’s Restaurant chain. https://www.zippia.com/arby-s-careers-15212/history/ ↑
- Author Susan Keller wrote that Ralph Stephen invented Suzi-Q potatoes in 1938. Keller, Susan., Gabaccia, Donna R.. We are what we eat: ethnic food and the making of Americans. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998. p143. Ralph Stephens of Oklahoma City applied for a trade-mark on “Suzi-Q” in May 1940, claiming to have been using it since July the previous year, according to The Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office (1940) p563. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Official_Gazette_of_the_United_States_Pa/logbAQAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=suzi-q The WPA Federal Writers’ Project entry about Suzi-Q potatoes is quoted in Mark Kurlansky, The Food of a Younger Land, Riverhead Books, 2009, p366. ↑
- The Hedy Lamarr siting mentioned in Sidney Skolsky’s column, Los Angeles Evening Citizen News, 13 Oct 1945, p4. The Stephens’s advertised their shrimp dinners in Evening Vanguard (Venice CA), (e.g. 5 Jun 1952, p17). ↑
- As per the Los Angeles telephone directory, 1948. ↑
- Katherine Hatch, “Ride to the Top a Bit Bumpy, But Worth It,” The Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City OK), 21 Jan 1968, pp43, 45. ↑
- For more history on the Suzy-Q dance step: https://www.barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/susie_q_or_suzie_q_or_suzy_q_dance ↑
- Jonathan Gold, “In Search of Curly Fries, Like they have in Missouri,” LA Weekly, 4 Jan 2012. https://www.laweekly.com/in-search-of-curly-fries-like-they-have-in-missouri/ ↑
- The Suzi-Q Potato Cutter Company of Oklahoma City was listed in a journal called Hotel Management in 1949.https://www.google.com/books/edition/Hotel_Management/L-VXO7jmJP0C?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=suzi-Q%20 ↑
- This page claims the inventor of the 1976 motorized model, James Chambos, was the originator of the curly-Q fry, but of course we know he wasn’t! http://westernnewyork.localfoodservice.com/apps/blog/view_more_detail.cfm?id=31133&catid=8449&ctoken=1856410246 ↑