Lester “Skip” Ipsen, community leader and founder of Skipolini’s Pizza died at home on March 18 after a long illness. Last Friday, nearly a thousand friends and family packed St. Bonaventure’s Catholic Church to share more laughs than tears in remembering a man who hadn’t yet learned to make good pizza when he opened the first Skipolini’s Pizza Garden in 1974. In fact, said Ed Moresi, owner of Ed’s Mudville Grill and Moresi’s Chophouse, there was no pizza at all on opening day because the dough machine had not yet been delivered.
Moresi was Skipolini’s first employee, bussing tables alongside Skip’s sons Kent and Eric.
“We opened at 4 p.m. with sandwiches, salad, sangria, beer and wine, but no pizza,” Moresi said. “About 6 o’clock, a few friends walked through the door carrying boxes of Straw Hat Pizza.”
Skipolini’s has always been a family operation, says Kent Ipsen.
“Our prep kitchen was our backyard pool house, not ventilated and completely illegal. My brother and I were in charge of making dough.”
One very busy night, Skip phoned the boys for more dough. It was a good night for television and the task got squeezed in between commercials with several missteps along the way.
“When Dad got home to pick up the dough, it was soup,” Kent said. “He was furious, ranting to my mother who simply said ‘You’ve got a 12-year-old and a 13-year-old that you aren’t paying…and these are your prep cooks?’”
It got better from there.
With Kent running the day-to-day operations and under Skip’s watchful eye, Skipolini’s has grown to six locations throughout Northern California.
Making business better
Clayton is no longer the outlying little “burg” with a population of under 1,200 that Skip found in the late 1960s when the town leaders generally had a “no growth” attitude.
“Skip was a businessman at heart,” says long-time friend Pete Laurence. “From the beginning he pulled together a few other businesses to encourage a more pro-business environment.” He was one of the early founders of the Clayton Business and Professional Association, precursor to the current Clayton Business and Community Association.
“Skip was pleased with all the growth,” Laurence said, “even when Round Table Pizza came into what is now La Veranda.”
“He could easily have viewed Round Table as a ‘business killer’ and put pressure on the city not to allow it,” he said. “But, instead, he looked for ways to make his own business better and started delivery service and made some other improvements.” Round Table lasted about a year before packing up and leaving town.
Rolling with Bocce
When Skip began looking at ways to give back to the community that had been so good to him and his family, the idea of a bocce park was born. Working with Kent and the CBCA, Skip provided the land and significant funding for the multi-court park in downtown Clayton. The Ipsen Family Bocce Park opened in 2014.
“My dad was an incredibly generous man with a deep sense of commitment to his community and who always did what he said would do,” says Kent. “My favorite memory of my dad will always be working on the bocce park together.”
“He knocked it out of the park, and it didn’t happen by accident,” says Moresi. “We always had Skip. Skip was our guy.”
Lester “Skip” Ipsen was born Sept. 12, 1940 in San Francisco and raised in El Cerrito. In 1960, he married his first wife, Beverly, who died in 2002.
Skip is survived by his wife Linda, who he married in 2005, his sister, Sue Pizarro of Manassas, Virginia, sons Eric Ipsen (Rita) of Oakland, Kent Ipsen (Yvette) of Clayton and grandchildren Allison and Sophia Ipsen of Oakland, Kristian and Lauren Ipsen of Clayton, step children Shari Canada (Randy) of Antioch and Denise Taylor of Antioch, six step grandchildren and three step great-grandchildren.