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Interview: What Did We Learn? Life’s a Beach

Southern California’s Beachlife Festival Founder Allen Sanford reflects on lessons of humility, true leadership, Bob Marley, and the deeper meaning of beach life.

The BeachLife Festival 2019 (Photo courtesy of The BeachLife Festival)

What Did We Learn? is a series of interviews featuring Southern California musicians and industry professionals, discussing their journey of transformation over the past year as a result of the music industry shut down due to Covid-19.

This segment’s interview features Allen Sanford who is an Entrepreneur, Restauranteur, and Founder of The BeachLife Festival held in his hometown of Redondo Beach, California.

BeachLife Partners (L to R) Jim Lindberg, Allen Sanford, Rob Lissner (Photo by JP Cordero)

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How would you describe your experience of the past year (2020) for you — personally and professionally?

AS: The first time I heard about COVID I was in a meeting with a friend of mine named Michael Greenberg, who’s the CEO of Skechers, and we were talking about the festivals around mid-February. It was a really positive talk and we were all excited. Then toward the end of the meeting, he asked me if I had heard of this thing — COVID? And I was like, ‘not really, I’ve seen some rumblings on social media — it’s that thing over in Asia.’ He looked at me really seriously and he goes, “it’s coming and you need to get ready for it. I’ve already shut down some factories and this thing’s coming.” And I remember thinking to myself…is he going crazy?? Like there’s no way this is going to happen. And then what happened, happened. And over the next few weeks, it was like dominoes falling.

As a little scrappy entrepreneur, we usually can force things to happen by sheer will. A lot of companies stay open just by sheer will, and that’s been the case in much of my career. But this was such a thing where I felt at some point just defeated — like this is much bigger than anything.

“The lesson I took from that was just because you can’t imagine something doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen”

I still didn’t want to cancel the festival — but then it became apparent I was going to have to cancel the festival. I wanted to have it rescheduled for September of that year [2020], but then all of a sudden things took a turn that I would never even dreamt of and it just got real dark. It was no longer about the festival, and we were all really scared. So I opened up the back of my restaurants for my friends and we shoveled food out into their cars with bandanas and gloves on. It was more movie-like than anything at the very beginning, and we all thought it and you caught it you’re a goner. It was a time where business became not even part of the equation. And then we moved into a different time, but that was the first time I really heard about it, and the lesson I took from that was just because you can’t imagine something doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen. That was the trail of how things started to unravel for us.

How did that affect you personally? What was going on for you internally?

AS: The best man at my wedding made fun of me when he gave a speech and he said that “Allen is the guy you call when there’s a problem.” And then his joke was, “I’m the guy you call when you want to have fun.” I tend to be the guy that friends or family or anybody, like when there’s a problem that needs to be solved, I’m all over it. And with COVID it was one of the first times in life that I couldn’t solve anything. And that’s hard to just feel so hopeless and helpless, not only with businesses but with our employees, and just basically be relegated to your home. It was a little dark and it wasn’t a very positive time. But I knew really quickly that it would get very negative and very dark if I didn’t figure out a way to at least do something. But initially, I felt this feeling that I’m not really used to which is, there’s nothing you can do, you don’t even get to get up to bat. You don’t even get to swing — you’re on the bench. And that’s a very difficult thing for me to grapple with.

Q: Was there a moment where you found yourself pivoting?

AS: Yeah, it was a very difficult time since all the restaurants were down, and then in June, things got worse where they said restaurants would be shut down July 4th weekend — which for us is always one of the biggest weekends of the year. That was a very kind of spiritual time where it was like low, low, low. So one of the turning moments for me was that we started thinking of outdoor dining, and I basically designed the program that the City of Redondo Beach used in the Riviera. Since I had a team of people that knew how to build temporary things, since that’s what we do, we just kind of jumped in and started building. I put my tool belt on and I was down there, literally, you know, carpentry tools and everything. And we ended up building 13,000 square feet parklets in less than a week and a half.

Wow!

It was pretty cool. And we did it in time for July 4th. I didn’t know it back then, but all of those businesses actually did better with having those parklets than they had done pre-COVID. It was really the cliche of making lemonade out of lemons type-of-thing. I realized I might not be able to operate my businesses, but I can do good out in the community. And it really does work — it really made a difference. That was a pivotal point for what I could do positively as myself and for BeachLife as a festival. We’re a music festival, but it felt super-natural for BeachLife to jump in. And it really cemented our place as part of the community. The philanthropy side of it — doing stuff for the community — really became the third leg of what the festival is. And so now moving forward with the festival, I’m planning a massive dinner on the Wednesday night before for all the philanthropies to raise a bunch of money. So that was a turning point for me from a negative to a positive perspective on this whole thing.

Parklets at Riviera Village (Photo by Riviera Village)

Q: So before that turning point, what were those first months like for you during the downtime in quarantine?

AS: On a business level very negative. I’m an obsessive person about building stuff and I’m passionate about my work, so it was very difficult to sit on the sidelines. We did some live streams, we did some other stuff but it was nothing like normal.

On a personal side, I have a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter who at the time was one. It was eye-opening to see what I was missing. For her first year pre-COVID, I would come home at nine o’clock at night, and leave at seven o’clock in the morning. So during this time, I created a relationship with my daughter where almost every day we went down to the beach. Now if I go more than a day without spending time with her in the morning or the evening, I can’t do it anymore. As I look back I realize in 20 or 30 years I’ll actually see COVID as a positive thing because I got to create a relationship with her that now, I won’t miss for the world. So really positive from that angle.

Annika Fox, Allen and Colleen Sanford (photo courtesy of Allen Sanford)

Q: What was the most difficult aspect of the past year was for you?

AS: Learning to realize that I’m that big [hand gestures — small]. I think human beings, in general, tend to be a little bit egocentric. We all think we’re the sun or heliocentric and everything revolves around us. We quickly learned we’re just a part of a really big massive thing, and you’re along for the ride.

I started swimming in the ocean a lot. I’m a surfer and I grew up in the ocean surfing, but I never swam just to swim. I started swimming a lot because it gives me a sense that I’m a very small thing in a very big ecosystem. I think there’s a healthiness to that — it keeps you grounded and keeps you humbled. Your businesses and everything — there’s more that goes along with it. That’s been a big learning lesson for me.

And then the other thing that’s been interesting on the way out of COVID — it feels like it’s done one thing or another for people. Either they become more aggressive and more entrenched in their thought, and just harder-core people. On the other hand, you have people that have become more human. Every day I negotiate with artists and business people, and a lot of this has been really nice. People have kind of laid down the aggressiveness and are being more reasonable, just as human beings. I don’t know quite what the reason is for that or how COVID kind of did that to people, but I hope it stays. I hope that’s a lasting effect.

Q: What did you learn most about yourself during this process?

That I’ve got a lot to learn. And that the world doesn’t revolve around what we’re doing. If you can’t imagine it doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen.

My dad raised me to always prepare for a rainy day, and I never understood it. [I thought] I can get through anything, I don’t care, I’ll do whatever — a little bit of an arrogant attitude. And then something like this happens where you don’t get through this — you’re responding to it. So what I’ve learned the most is to just be humble, be nice, be dynamic and be able to shift with your surroundings. It might not necessarily be the best strategy all the time to just run through walls with your head down. Sometimes it’s good to look around, be a little bit smarter, and be able to look at things in a different way to kind of decide on what your next step is. The parklets are a great example of how I had to shift my thinking because my normal thinking was that you can’t do a restaurant unless your restaurant is open. Then it was like, ‘oh wait a minute, maybe we could use public space to offset this, okay what does that look like…’ That ended up being really successful and taught me a pretty significant lesson.

Allen Sanford (Photo by JP Cordero)

Q: What was the point when you started to see some light at the end of the tunnel for doing The BeachLife Festival? How did things start to shift for you and what was that process like coming back?

AS: The first thing that I needed to do was to change my mentality to be flexible with the current. Whereas before, the first thing you do is nail down the date and make sure you can do it. Well, you can’t do that right now.

I had to make the decision in January of whether to do BeachLife [in September 2021] when things weren’t looking that good. I was looking at data, I was looking at numbers, I was looking at the vaccine and making some guesses — and by the way, I was wrong like 37 times during COVID. I could in no way predict the future. But I thought to myself, as long as I mitigate the risk, what’s the downside of trying to do September? I don’t want to give people false hope and have to reschedule, again and again, that’s not good for morale. But I didn’t want to end 2021 with a defeat and just punt it to next year, which I could have done quite easily. And to be honest, there’s no reward for being first — there’s only potential damage. I made an educated guess with some risk mitigation, and I promised myself I would stay flexible. It’s turning out to be the right decision, so far. The amount of support that we’ve gotten has been really validating. It really has turned into a light at the end of the tunnel in the community. I think there’s gonna be tears and hugs. So it’s turned out to be something that’s taken on a little bit more significance than just another music festival, at least here in South Bay.

Q: Looking ahead — how do you want to feel at the end of the festival? What is your personal goal?

AS: To exhale. We’ve been through a tremendous amount of damage, economically. Our team got destroyed. Some people didn’t make it back. We’re a ragtag team right now doing 10 people’s jobs because we can’t hire fast enough. Our goal is just to make it through and be as good as we were the first year because we all feel we did a great job the first year. We all stand by what we did.

My goal is to stand on the side of that stage with my daughter and look out and see 10,000 people having a good time. I mean, there is no better present at the end.

During COVID, I used to sing Bob Marley to my daughter when she would go to bed. “Every little thing is gonna be all right.” I sang it during the entire pandemic to her. And I think I was kind of singing it to myself too. I’m a new father — so you have this ultimate responsibility for her feeling that everything is gonna be alright.

She almost three now, and I didn’t realize how much they take in. Two or three months ago as things started to get better, I said to her — ‘Hey, Bob Marley’s gonna play the festival and we’re going to go together.’ Well, it’s really Ziggy and Steve — but she was like, “cool!” And I went to bed, and about 20 minutes later my wife woke me up and says “listen to this!” My daughter was singing to herself, and she sang a whole verse and chorus of Bob Marley. So yeah, that was good. I almost tear up when I think about it because it’s just such a full circle. That to me is and will be, the ultimate sign of success.

You may have alluded to this, so I wonder if there is a spiritual lesson for you — or a deeper meaning in all this for you.

AS: Tattooed on my arm is Aristotle. I’m always too heady about this stuff but spiritually the realization is that I’m tiny, tiny…insignificant. I found a kind of spirituality in this community right here [in Redondo Beach]. I grew up here, and I just love it. I just love the fact that we all kind of take care of each other. I just love the people that stood out that didn’t need to do anything but did, and stepped up during COVID. I think we’ll be talking about it for the next few decades. So my kind of spiritual or energy learning from this thing was that it really does feel good to be a part of the community and to give back, and to be real about it. I didn’t feel that before. That wasn’t really on my radar. Yeah, I helped some philanthropies, but I didn’t really get dirty doing that stuff. So this has been kind of an eye-opener for me. So much so, that for BeachLife that will be a pillar of what we do moving forward.

Q: Of all the lessons, knowledge, insight — what will you take with you moving forward? How will your life be different?

AS: I can already see I think that it’s slightly changed me as a person. I think that I’m more understanding of the human side of things. I’m definitely still ambitious as an entrepreneur, don’t get me wrong, but it’s leveled me out. I’m not as much of an asshole sometimes. I don’t go there anymore. It’s not like an immediate trigger for me to go there. Whereas before, if I didn’t get something or if I didn’t accomplish something I would just put my head down and go right through anybody to get it.

“You don’t need to be hardcore and always the last one there to be a good leader. It’s almost the opposite. It’s those that really can feel and resonate with their team that to me become the most successful leaders.”

I think there’s a human element to being a leader that I was missing before. I’m trying to be, and trying is the key-word — we’re always making mistakes — trying to be more human, as a leader. Hopefully, that’s more effective. You don’t need to be hardcore and always the last one there to be a good leader. It’s almost the opposite. It’s those that really can feel and resonate with their team that to me become the most successful leaders. I definitely think my whole vibe has changed a little bit, insofar as that. It’s probably the biggest difference in me right now….still ambitious but there’s a lot of other things that I’m focused on too now.

Q: Do you have a mantra or philosophical quote that you want to take with you moving forward?

AS: Two things. I don’t know necessarily if COVID created both of these, but what I just generally have — it’s tattooed on my arm — is this idea that being ethical is a daily habit. To find people that you aspire to be like, and you copy/emulate those people. We shouldn’t feel lesser for saying that. A lot of people feel like they don’t like to admit that, and I love when I find somebody that I think is really cool or is doing a great job — I love telling them ‘I just want to tell you how cool I think you are.’ That’s a kind of an exercise in humility of itself. So that’s definitely been reinforced. There are several people that during the pandemic I either saw or know really well in the community that I go, ‘man, I want to be like that,’ and gravitated toward that.

And kind of the less heady thing is, I just realized how much I absolutely love living the beach life. I’m in the right business, because what did I do during a lockdown? I went to the beach every day. All I did was take my daughter to the beach, teach her about getting in the water all the little etiquettes that go along with it. We picked up trash together and I saw the not-so-great part when the beaches got crowded and it got dirty and trashed. The other day we’re at the beach — you know she’s two and a half — and she sees a piece of trash, picks it up, and puts it in the trashcan. What a great lesson — that when I was not allowed to do anything and I had to really pull back, what did I do — I lived the beach life. That’s pretty cool.

Tickets on sale now for BeachLife Festival for September 10–12, 2021.

#music #beachlifefestival #beachlifefestival2021 #bobmarley #ziggymarley #threelittlebirds #redondobeach #riviera #whatdidwelearn #beach #lightwavelive #allensanford

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