Eppie Johnson, a bigger-than-life Sacramento businessman whose fame as the owner of a chain of 24-hour coffee shops was surpassed only by his legend as founder of an annual athletic contest billed as the worlds oldest triathlon, has died at 85.
Johnson, who recently hinted at unspecified health problems, went to bed Saturday night in his Sacramento home and never woke up, said his son George. Johnson was discovered Monday by a friend who noticed Johnson had not picked up his newspaper, George said.
Like Cher or Madonna, Johnson was a beloved Sacramento celebrity known to family, friends and fans simply as Eppie. Colorful and charismatic, he originally made his name synonymous with coffee shops in Sacramento when he opened his first restaurant, Eppies, at 30 and N streets in 1965.
He went on to open other namesake restaurants including locations with his full first name, Eppaminondas in San Francisco, Las Vegas, Fresno and the Lake Tahoe area. At various times, he also owned hotels and other properties, including South Hills Racquet Club in South Land Park.
A tall, athletic man of Greek descent with blue eyes, thick hair and a big smile, Johnson was a natural showman who marketed his restaurants with flair and stunts. During the 1960s and 1970s, he ran popular TV commercials showing him balancing a plateful of food while water skiing.
His business success, however, was eclipsed by his lasting achievement as the founder of a beloved Sacramento tradition. An avid kayaker, he came up with an idea to start an athletic contest as a marketing ploy. He proposed a three-event athletic contest including running, cycling and kayaking.
He had quite a few restaurants, said his daughter Lisa Mangels, and he thought it would be fun to promote them and this new sport of kayaking.
He launched Eppies Great Race in 1974 as part promotion, part charity fundraiser. The event, popularly regarded as the worlds oldest triathlon, has grown into a major summertime celebration in Sacramento known simply as Eppies.
The contest annually attracts more than 2,000 participants who race 5.82 miles on foot, 12.5 miles by bike and 6.35 miles by kayak on the American River. The event draws even more spectators, including many from other states and countries. Individual race participants and team members include local celebrities, government and corporate leaders, and generations of Sacramento families.
Eppies Great Race has raised more than $1 million for Sacramento County Therapeutic Recreation Services, which provides activities for people with developmental disabilities. Besides contestants, the race draws thousands of spectators.
I thought Id be known as Eppie, a good restaurant owner, he told The Bee in 2003, and now I hope Im remembered as the race founder.
Former county Supervisor Illa Collin recalled how Johnson, ever the showman, came up with new ways to present the money to county officials each year. Once a year he wrote out a check on the side of a canoe. Another year, he dressed for the presentation as a superhero. In 2003, he poured $50,000 in cash and coins on the dais in the Board of Supervisors chambers.
All of those presentations were covered by television, Collin said. The TV crews absolutely loved Eppie.
While Eppies Great Race grew into a major operation with a year-round office and staff, Johnsons coffee shops and other restaurants declined. He owned more than two dozen eateries before falling on hard times in an era of changing customer tastes and gourmet coffee shops. He sold the businesses out of bankruptcy in 1998.
Eppie had a larger than life personality, and he leaves a lasting legacy that will endure for years to come, said Will Kempton, former race director and director of the California Department of Transportation.
Eppaminondas G. Johnson was born May 7, 1928, in Astoria, N.Y. He graduated from the University of Nevada in Reno in 1951 and moved to Sacramento to work for his father, who owned two restaurants and a hotel in the area.
He married Nancy Vandivier in 1958 and had two children. The marriage ended in divorce more than 20 years ago.
Johnson is survived by his two children. A memorial service is being planned.
As he prepared for the 40th Eppies Great Race in July, Johnson told The Bee that he was handing off the day-to-day duties of the event to his son.
The race is important to me, but it has also become a fabric of the community, he said. Its hard to put into words. Maybe its my legacy.
Call The Bee's Robert D. Davila, (916) 321-1077. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Davila. The Bee's Tillie Fong and Hudson Sangree contributed to this report.
Editor's Note: This story has been changed from a previous version to correct the year Johnson graduated from the University of Reno. Corrected on Sept. 17, 2013.