Having the State of California as her landlord was very much not the plan for Alicia Cox. The former marketing director-turned-restaurateur spent years growing brands for others in Las Vegas, but now — thanks to a combination of providence and preparedness — she’s the quiet Orange County queen of concessions, serving up food to thousands and thousands of the 9 million-plus beachgoers who trek each summer season to the state-owned sand. All told, Cox’s Prjkt (pronounced Project) Group oversees six concepts up and down Pacific Coast Highway at both Bolsa Chica and Huntington state beaches, with a seventh in the works. It’s hard, weather-affected work, but these days Cox wouldn’t have it any other way.
In the early 2000s, Cox was far from the restaurant industry, overseeing the marketing team at alt-paper OC Weekly, working as the glue between print, editorial, and advertising. She spent her time maximizing reader outreach with large-scale events, pulling in donors and advertisers at one end and thousands of customers at the other. “I loved creating something and watching it come to life,” Cox says.
To pull in resort advertisers, the then-27-year-old Cox traveled to Las Vegas frequently for meetings. On one such trip, she was wooed away by Red Rock Casino to help lead the group’s entire entertainment marketing division, spread across 17 different casinos and properties — a big upgrade for a twentysomething used to throwing local events for an alt-weekly. Roaming casino floors, Cox documented every advertising opportunity that reached consumers, from valet sandwich boards to digital readerboards to placards on top of slot machines. Over time, her team would turn each of these into opportunities to upsell, grow the group’s underperforming food and beverage locations, and keep the attention of an audience ready to be pulled away by bright lights, big sounds, and the allure of money.
Her eye for innovation led to a stint developing new restaurants and bars for the group, including a three-month, whirlwind opening of a country and Western bar called Revolver in North Las Vegas (now since closed) that cost nearly a million dollars. “It was like creating magic for thousands,” Cox says of her time building engagement, new brands, and experiences for an eager Vegas clientele.
It also led to incredible burnout. Cox spent three years living out of hotel rooms, maneuvering a new (and long-distance) marriage and, eventually, a child. She spent the first seven months of her pregnancy running the same grind in Las Vegas, before moving back to Orange County to prepare for a new life with her daughter Sahara — named, of course, for the casino. Bed rest and journaling led to a business plan for a wine bar and full-service restaurant near the beach and, in 2012, to SeaLegs, a dining room with an extensive wine portfolio off Beach Boulevard in Huntington Beach. By the time Sahara was one, the restaurant had cemented its reputation with locals. “It was built with the grace of God and the fumes of a dream,” says Cox, who spent that first year mopping the floors after the regulars had gone home, and going the extra mile to make sure the locals saw her as one of their own.
Sea Salt followed in 2015, a Santa Maria-inspired barbecue sibling to SeaLegs. Later that year, Huntington Beach city officials approached Cox about a dilapidated concession stand at Bolsa Chica State Beach. They had plans to rehab the building, which had stood empty for 15 years, and were hoping for some local proposals in addition to all the big-chain names that typically apply for state beach concessions vacancies. All told, the city had four different concession sites up for rehabilitation, and when the day came to submit proposals, Cox found herself pitching ideas on all of them. Cox leaned on her time in Las Vegas to sell state officials on her ability to pull in even the most distracted crowds. Out of 20 interested parties, Cox was the only local, non-chain name, making her a much bigger question mark for the California State Parks system — a typically risk-averse group and the largest real estate owner in the state. Imagine her surprise, then, when all four concession spaces landed in her lap.
What’s more, Cox’s Prjkt Group had only months to bring all four facilities online, beginning in May 2016 with SeaLegs at the Beach. The usually level-headed Cox faced an early identity crisis: Was this version of SeaLegs a day club, a restaurant, a traditional concession, or a music venue on the sand? Customers came through looking for combinations of all four, culminating in Cox’s decision to offer a barbecue-focused menu that also played Beatles during Saturday brunch and offered mimosas and yoga on Sundays.
Sea Salt Beachside Burger followed, pushing cover bands and country tunes on weekends. Pacific Kitchen is the party palace of the group, offering occasional DJ sets alongside bowls of poke and Korean galbi short ribs over rice. Beach City Provisions arrived after that, skewing toward nachos and burritos for the RV crowds, while also promoting bike rentals and selling firewood.
Within five years of returning home from Vegas, Alica Cox had built a restaurant empire on the beach. However, maintaining all the properties would come at a cost. There was, she thought, simply no way that she could maintain a work-life balance while running her original restaurant and the beach concessions that had begun to consume her life. She had already left Las Vegas because of burnout from work, so why was she creating it again in her hometown?
With a year left on the original SeaLegs Wine Bar lease, a longtime wine locker member gave an offer on the property. Cox decided to sell in 2019 to recalibrate her focus on concessions. She cried for nearly two months after the deal was finalized. Her second restaurant, Sea Salt, struggled to turn a profit against rising food costs, so Cox sold that business as well, unloading it to the group behind Social in Costa Mesa in 2019.
Originally the proprietor of full-service restaurants, Cox found herself doubling down not on walls, but beaches. Looking back, she views those changes as stepping stones toward a greater goal. “If I hadn’t done those [early projects], I would never have had the experience to be able to get to this place in life,” she says.
With a renewed focus on concessions along the Orange County coast, Cox’s Prjkt Group bid on three more stands just below Beach Boulevard. In March 2020, just weeks before COVID-19 forced the statewide closure of on-site dining at restaurants, her proposals were approved. It took nearly a year of negotiating lease terms and waiting for pandemic restrictions to lift before Cox was able to cut the ribbon on the Huntington Beach House. Cox envisioned the Huntington Beach House as a view into the laid-back city of Huntington Beach itself. Known for its eclectic mix of young surfers, volleyball players, vocal libertarian types, and retirees, the city was made small inside Huntington Beach House. Servers shelled out endless taquitos, fried fish tacos, and chilaquiles to anyone who showed up, while bartenders mixed drinks, poured beers, and tugged on the handles of several slushie machines filled with frozen pina coladas, watermelon margaritas, and mojitos.
Cox has since opened her most personal project to date, Sahara Sandbar. A family-friendly escape, the restaurant slings a New York-California hybrid pizza style (Cox found that other dough styles did not hold up in the unpredictably salty and humid beach air) and aims to teach her daughter about the importance of giving back. The namesake restaurant is a collaboration with nonprofit Families Forward, which offers housing and other solutions for underprivileged families. One dollar from every pizza sold goes to the non-profit, and the company hires at least some of its staff directly from affected families.
Reimagining the way both a city and a state park system cater to its millions of vacationers is a task Cox doesn’t take lightly. “We serve guests from across the world,” she says, “and know that these concessions needed to be a memorable experience infused with a taste of our Orange County and Huntington Beach cultures and, frankly, all of California.”
Soon, Cox will bring to life her seventh concession stand, fulfilling all of her current contracts with the state of California. “I feel very grateful to the universe that the state parks [system] has trusted me to basically transform California’s coastline and their concessions experience,” says Cox. Called California Fork and Spoon, the restaurant will attempt to interpret the history of state parks through food, dividing its menu into four “regions” representing the different areas of California. So far, she’s thinking about dishes as varied as egg-centric new American brunch plates and hearty Italian seafood cioppino. A full liquor license is in the works as well, along with soju cocktails. It’s a fresh vision of what beach food can be, particularly for diners who may be more accustomed to hot dogs, burgers, and nachos along the boardwalk.
“I hope one day when this has all settled down, I can do my part to help inspire, train, and teach other women the lessons I had to learn the hard way,” she says. For now, that means setting up shop right on the sand along one of California’s busiest beach stretches; where the future takes her, though, is still to be determined. While Cox admits that she’s still “addicted to the industry,” she’s also found a renewed sense of wanderlust thanks to her time spent in partnership with the state parks system.
Inside her home is a map of California’s many state parks — she’s only visited a handful so far. Her goal is to eventually tick them all off, one by one, with her daughter Sahara, stopping to enjoy the food and drink at various concessionaires along the way. Perhaps, if the right deal presented itself, she might even find herself called to some unused stand up or down the coast. After all, there’s plenty of sand in this state, and more than a few hungry beach customers to feed.