1702 pizza closing

Eric Lepie, owner of 1702 Pizza and Craft Beer, is closing after 15 years in business.

For 45 years, Eric Lepie has put in 10- to 12-hour days, five, six and sometimes seven days a week, at 1702 E. Speedway.

For 30 years, he ran his namesake restaurant and ice cream shop in the space. Over the last 15 years, he’s tossed pizzas and poured craft beers, many of them locally brewed, at 1702 — the sign explained the name with a simple statement: “It’s the address.”

When he and his partner Austin Santos decided to jump into the local craft brewing scene in late 2011, they dubbed their nanobrewery The Address, also a play on the 1702 street address.

But at the end of business on Friday, May 27, Lepie will turn out the lights one final time when he locks the doors of 1702 for good.

“We really never recovered from the pandemic,” he lamented earlier this week as the clock ticked on the pizzeria’s final days. “The research people (from the nearby University of Arizona) really haven’t come back to their offices. The parking lot has been empty for the past two or three years.”

1702 never closed during the pandemic, pivoting to takeout and delivery using a third-party delivery app. The costs, Lepie said, ate up 30% to 40% of his sales. He and Santos scaled back the menu, taking pastas and sandwiches off and streamlining to chicken wings, pizza and craft beer to cut food costs.

They kept the smaller menu in place after things started opening up in summer 2020, but with all the new variations of COVID-19 and the threats of infection that followed, the parking lot remained mostly empty.

Eric Lepie in front of a wall of signatures in the back room of his restaurant in 2006. Astronauts, a U.S. Senator, doctors, astrophysicists and ordinary Joes signed the walls in the back room at his original shop, Eric’s Ice Cream & Fine Food.

In February, Lepie’s neighbor Greek House at 1710 E. Speedway threw in the towel after eight years, telling its customers in a Facebook post on Feb. 20 that “COVID just proved to be too much for us.” Part of the Greek restaurant’s menu is being served by its sister restaurant Dolce Vita Italian Bistro at 1800 E. Fort Lowell Road.

“I think when the Greek place went out, the writing was on the wall,” said Lepie.

Not only will Lepie be closing the restaurant on Friday but he’s also closing the final chapter of a 45-year restaurant career in Tucson.

He opened his first restaurant, the popular Eric’s Fine Food & Ice Cream, in 1977 and gained a reputation for unusual and innovative (for the times at least) ice cream flavors, including his Gentle Persuasion, made with oatmeal and prunes. The treat landed on “Letterman” and “The Tonight Show” and was lauded by the The New York Times when it was dubbed 1987’s product of the year by a national food trade magazine.

Eric Lepie, shown in 2003, started making ice cream in Tucson in 1976.

Lepie is most proud, though, of sending a gift certificate good for a free burger to Mars as part of the UA-led Pathfinder landrover mission in 1996. Lepie said he was an honorary member of the Pathfinder team, which regularly came to his restaurant after hours. He would open the restaurant just for them, he said.

“I was hoping that either (Jeff) Bezos or (Elon) Musk would bring it back,” he joked, alluding to the two mutlibillionaires’ private space flight companies.

When he closed Eric’s in 2006, he pivoted to pizza at 1702 and business was good from the start.

1702 never closed during the pandemic, pivoting to takeout and delivery using a third-party delivery app. However, business has remained slow for the last two to three years.

“We had an incredible crew, great people in the kitchen, great management,” he said. “The pandemic came on and it kind of crushed us.”

Lepie said his plans after Friday include renewing his passport so he can travel more and visiting his daughter.

“It’s been a struggle and after doing this since 1977, I figured it’s time to enjoy life again,” he said.

1702 may be open from 11 a.m. to 8 or 9 p.m. Friday, May 27. Call 520-325-1702 in advance.

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Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at cburch@tucson.com. On Twitter @Starburch