Serious Volunteers Need Apply at Morro Bay's Marine Mammal Center

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To report a distressed marine mammal on the Central Coast call the Marine Mammal Center’s local hotline at (805) 771-8300.

To rescue stranded or injured animals in sometimes difficult circumstances is the calling of the most dedicated volunteers, those whose passion and concern for sea mammals – seals, sea lions, sea elephants, dolphins, porpoises and whales – aren’t just words, but a deep, active and lasting commitment.

The Marine Mammal Center headquarters in Sausalito is a full-service veterinary hospital monitoring 600 miles of coastline from Mendocino County to San Luis Obispo with a network of hundreds of volunteers. Animals that strand on the beaches of San Luis Obispo draw the rapid response of the Center’s outpost on the coast in Morro Bay, and while it is a satellite office, Morro Bay is vital to the organization’s southern reach.

The Center’s Jim Oswald offers this overview from Sausalito: “The Marine Mammal Center’s Morro Bay, Monterey Bay and Anchor Bay triage sites have always served as a ‘base’ for rescue personnel living in those regions to be able to quickly come to the rescue of sick and injured marine mammals in need along the 600 miles of coast that we respond to.

“Approximately 80% of our funding comes from private sources and it is that funding that helps our animal care and rescue operations thrive throughout all of our rescue range locations. In 2011, approximately 24% of our 545 patients were rescued from the Morro Bay region. Having the Morro Bay triage site is certainly important to us, and more importantly, to marine mammals in that region that need help,” Mr. Oswald reported to The ROCK.

Hidden from traffic off a side road at 1385 Main Street, across from Lemo’s, the low-profile Morro Bay field office is located on the grounds of Dynegy’s Morro Bay Power Plant. Since it doesn’t house injured or recovering seals or offer public tours, the facility’s critical work rescuing, treating and transporting injured marine mammals takes place mostly out of public view. This setting may limit the public’s ability to truly appreciate their work, but it also underscores the importance of the work they do and the absolute dedication to marine mammals it takes to do it without fanfare.

Lisa Harper Henderson is the sole staff person at the Morro Bay field office, opened in early 2006, and has been working with the Center since 2002. “Volunteers truly do everything,” Miss Henderson recently told The ROCK. “It’s kind of addictive when you start working with these animals and see the good that you could do.”

The Morro Bay facility has a large “animal kitchen” with food, supplies, medication and formula. Marine mammal patients find themselves there usually because of malnutrition, human interactions — entanglements in ocean trash, gunshots, beach harassment, boat strikes, etc. — and illness such as bacterial infections and toxic algae poisoning. If a young animal comes in, under a veterinarian’s orders from Sausalito, volunteers with some medical training will see that the animal is tube-fed and stabilized.

“Usually they’re just here for a day a two, spend a night or two, and then they are transported to Sausalito to the main hospital, and that’s where the rehabilitation happens,” Miss Henderson said. “It works really well, but it’s kind of like a Pony Express.”

Rescued mammals are no less dramatically transported station to station via the Marine Mammal Center’s rescue relay system than the mail was carried rider to rider in the dusty days of the Pony Express.

“From here we have another satellite facility in Moss Landing, so we meet halfway at King City (for the) swapping of the animals or vehicles, so to speak,” Miss Henderson explains, “then they go to next facility probably for their next feed. Sometimes they’ll spend another night or they’ll continue all the way up, and from there they’ll meet at Half Moon Bay, and Half Moon Bay to Sausalito, so it’s quite the journey.”

February-March is the beginning of pup season when elephant seal weaners leave the rookeries; some wind up on beaches, and Marine Mammal Center volunteers will see if they need assistance. From March to May it’s the harbor seal pup season and the Center runs its annual campaign to “Leave Seals Be.”

“They are about this big,” Miss Henderson said, holding her hands about a foot and a half apart, “they’re very adorable and they go ‘ma!’ The moms can’t stay on the beach the whole four weeks like the elephant seals do because they’re small animals, so they’re going to be with their pup three or four days, then they’re going to go out and forage and leave their pups on the beach.”

That’s where problems begin for both seal and amateur rescuer.

“Usually well-intentioned people will come by and think the pup’s abandoned,” Miss Henderson said. “They pick them up, take them home, put them in the bathtub, and we get called… If you think they’re distressed, if you think they’re maternally separated, then call us.

“When animals arrive at the Center for a night or two, they are put on a scale and weighed and placed in a pen, unless they’re harbor seals which have their own special room. Once they’re in here we’re going to get a good look at them, assess their condition, and then we’re on the phone with a veterinarian team up in Sausalito, and there we’re going to describe what’s going on with the animal. They give us orders, and then we will either start doing a feed or give them fluids… ”

They have a well-stocked medical exam room in Morro Bay where they can begin to treat the animals for the journey ahead.

“Every animal starts with a chart just like a person in the hospital,” she said. “There are a lot of similarities — they’re mammals, we’re mammals — and that chart follows them all the way through their care and all the through until hopefully they’re released.”

Fortunately, Miss Henderson said, there aren’t many live strandings of whales, porpoises or dolphins. There have been a few successful releases, but strandings are few and far between. “If we do, if we have a live cetacean, we really get out there as fast as we can.

“Once they hit the shore their survival rate is very low, so we’re there as soon as possible. We have special training techniques that we use specifically for those cetaceans, such as a dolphin, and our goal is to get that animal safely off the beach on to transport and on its way to wherever that animal is going to go, to get it to that location, to get it into the pools, and there they will have experienced, expert people there taking care of them.”

Morro Bay volunteers operate “on call” but that doesn’t mean they have to come in and sit all day waiting for something to happen. Sometimes, out of season, nothing happens for a long while.

“As long as you’re able to drop what you’re doing and respond,” Miss Henderson said, “and if we have volunteers spread out, if we get a call that’s in San Simeon and we have people in Cambria, then we can call that person and they can go up and check and assess if the animal’s still there, does the animal need rescuing, before we assemble a crew, get everyone here, get them in the vehicles, and drive for what could be an hour and a half to get all the way up to that site.”

The Morro Bay facility is always in need of volunteers. Three to five volunteers are generally on call in Morro Bay, with dozens more in the area network. “The biggest challenge is keeping volunteers,” Miss Henderson said. “We do two volunteer introduction meetings and trainings a year, one in January and one in June. During that time we try to really emphasize the commitment; yes, we really want you, but it is a commitment and people need to be serious. As can you imagine, it takes quite some time to learn everything and there’s a lot to learn. The hit-and-miss approach is not really doing the marine mammals any good because the training has not gotten to the appropriate level.

“We have a good volunteer turnout,” she said, “but I think, as with any volunteer organization, there’s a high attrition rate, but we have very dedicated volunteers. In Sausalito there are people that have been with us over 35 years. Down here we have a few individuals that have been with us 15, 20 years. So you really become involved. I can’t imagine not being involved in one way or another. I was a volunteer for almost seven years before I was offered the position and then became full-time staff.”

The Morro Bay Center is holding a “Volunteer Introduction Meeting” on Wednesday, January 9, 6:30 p.m. at the Morro Bay Community Center on Kennedy Way. Anyone interested in helping to either rescue and care for marine mammals found on local shores can attend and find out more about the Center, what they do, and what’s expected of a volunteer.

As a volunteer-based organization, all Marine Mammal Center volunteers are well trained and highly valued. In addition to assisting in the rescue, treatment and transport of animals, Miss Henderson and a handful of volunteers do a bit of everything – outreach, education, group presentations, working with the media, and participating with educational booth at events like Morro Bay’s annual Harbor Festival.

The Marine Mammal Center is a nonprofit, most of the fundraising is focused in the Bay Area, and funds are always needed to cover expenses. What is the Center’s biggest expense every year?

“Our biggest expense is fish,” Miss Henderson said. “We go through lots and lots of fish. We do a lot of transporting with vehicles and fuel – but fish is the biggest cost. It’s expensive just because of the sheer amount of animals. Just by size and number of animals that come through our facility, we are the largest marine mammal facility in the world. We cover from the site 600 miles of the California coastline. We have very large numbers and they’ve all got to eat fish until they’re ready to go.”

The Center is now in the process of adding new Pacific coastline to its national and international network. In September it broke ground in Hawaii on the new Hawaiian Monk Seal Hospital in Kailua-Kona.

For more information about The Marine Mammal Center in Morro Bay call (805) 771-8302 or email To learn more about The Marine Mammal Center or make a donation visit


Photos courtesy of the Marine Mammal Center:

A young harbor seal patient, too weak to eat on his own, receives a meal via tube-feeding at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. © Dina Warren, The Marine Mammal Center

The Marine Mammal Center team rescues an adult California sea lion injured on rocks in San Mateo County in 2012. ©The Marine Mammal Center

Front entrance to The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. ©David Wakely

Mrs. Taylor's Prohibition Zone

Long-time Los Osos activist and resident Gewynn Taylor passed away on December 10 at the age of 81. We published her comments in a tribute to her on February 5, 2011 (“Mrs. Taylor’s PZ”).

Gewynn Taylor

In Los Osos, California, where an unnecessary $200 million County sewer project on steroids will kick thousands out of their homes, desperation fills the air like thick smoke from imaginary cannon fire drifting across the scarred fields of the once “shovel ready,” now abandoned Tri-W site of the stopped 2005 project.

The Los Osos sewer was either going to be an affordable alternative technology instead of costly gravity collection, or five years from now there would be all new people populating bayside parts of town that the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board in 1983 declared the “Prohibition Zone.” When the County drop-kicked any and all alternatives in 2007, Los Osos lost its last hope for affordability. As a result, although many fought and suffered strokes, heart attacks, death and divorce over the sewer across the years to get to that point, all that was all just a prelude. The next phase of suffering was about to begin on a much larger scale.

Gewynn Taylor, a long-time resident of Los Osos who lives with her husband George, a retired fireman, in Los Osos’ targeted “Prohibition Zone,” has been a regular speaker at public comment at San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors meetings for years. She speaks on Los Osos water-related issues and rarely misses a Tuesday meeting, but you still may not have noticed her. Sometimes it’s easy to miss Mrs. Taylor’s comments between the alley-cat theatrics of Al Barrow and fearless fact attacks of Richard Margetson. That doesn’t mean she’s milquetoast or marm-ish by any stretch, just supremely independent.

And don’t be fooled by the nicely-coiffed gray hair, either—Supervisor Patterson will have a senior moment long before Gewynn Taylor ever does; he already has, many times. She is a tigress for her PZ neighbors, and never quits teaching the uneducated, no matter how high the throne they sit. Mrs. Taylor is always respectful but firm; factual, well informed, but never lectures. Her no-nonsense comments are always clear, to the point, unadorned, and she only speaks about what she knows for sure, from 30 years of living in the community, watching boards and supervisors come and go, and Los Osos left behind. The usual response Mrs. Taylor draws after leaving the podium is “Thank you for your comment, Mrs. Taylor. Next speaker…”

When the shamelessly politicized County Board of Supervisors or poor-excuse-for-a-newspaper The Tribune berate Los Osos public comment speakers for the frequency of their appearances or the repetitiveness of their comments, they risk dismissing the real voices of the community that come through Mrs. Taylor.

That is why her comments at the February 1 Board of Supervisors meeting were so alarming.

Citing the 1,296 bankruptcies in the County in 2010, the 100-plus foreclosures in Los Osos and the infeasibility of reverse mortgages for most homeowners, Mrs. Taylor politely but strongly asked the board to reevaluate the sewer project and its “upcoming horrendous costs” to property owners.

“The premise that Supervisor Gibson has that people have equity in their homes to pay for the sewer cost is not the answer. Many property owners have exhausted their equity. Their credit cards are being maxed out and they do not see an answer to their financial problems. Some of them are contemplating the wrong wayBy that I mean doing away with their lives…

Following public comment, the Board had no comment, not to any public speaker for that matter, not to Mrs. Taylor, who was reporting to the board that one option some Los Osos seniors were seriously considering as an answer to the grim certainty of $200 to $250 a month sewer bills—is suicide.

As usual, none of the five male board members had any comment about Mrs. Taylor’s comment before moving on to other board business. Not a word about sewercide—a new way to die in America. And just because no one has ever heard of it doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen in Los Osos—it is. Gewynn Taylor never exaggerates. She speaks for Los Osos in a way Supervisor Gibson never could, from the inside out, which is one reason speaking for Los Osos is itself frowned upon from the dais: you can’t fool Gewynn.

To counter those they can’t fool, the Board of Supervisors contend that Los Osos homeowners who complain about their fate during public comments are whiners. The five male supervisors appear to believe that 5,000 human lives are acceptable collateral damage in the building of a public works project in America today.

Only through that darkly cynical lens can Los Osos seniors, perhaps other residents, contemplating suicide by sewer be viewed as unavoidably expendable by our noble San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors. Certainly, the supervisors to a man neither condone nor encourage it, nevertheless they had nothing whatsoever to say to Mrs. Taylor when she told them about life and death in Los Osos.

And after the board had nothing to say to the wise Mrs. Taylor, the board also had nothing to say to the rest of America. Because the rest of America hasn’t heard about Los Osos and doesn’t know what’s happening there—if they did it might be different. Someone might ask questions. Why are so many people being forced out by a sewer? Why is San Luis Obispo County building a big-city sewer—the most expensive per capita in America today—in a small, quiet, officially declared “disadvantaged community” in the throes of the Great Recession? How has this great American injustice been hidden so long?

Meanwhile, the homeowners who live in the so-called “Prohibition Zone” of Los Osos today know all about collateral damage—they’re it. They are the ones living amid the shock and awe of the County’s town-busting barrage of sewer bills, walking ground zero in a daze, broken by fear, reeling from the economic and financial disaster heaped on thousands, all from a misguided, political wastewater project so criminal in its costs that in five years there will be all new people in what is now Los Osos’ infamous—but not yet famous worldwide—“Prohibition Zone.”

The Smooth Asian Flair of Off The Hook

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The Embarcadero in Morro Bay has a new restaurant that revolutionizes seafood dining on the Central Coast and adds a smooth, subtle Asian flair to classic dishes. Seafood lovers searching for something different and compelling in Morro Bay need look no further.

George Leage, who brought The Harbor Hut to prominence on the north end of the Embarcadero, and recently turned it over to his son, Tony, could have rested on his laurels. Instead he did the opposite, took a giant leap and opened Off The Hook Seafood Grill & Sushi Bar, the most exciting new restaurant to open on the waterfront since Giovanni DeGarimore flipped on the lights at his colorful, sophisticated Euro wine-and-bistro STAX in 2010.

Off The Hook serves fish & chips, so what makes them different? If it’s the classics you crave, OTH’s fish & chips is a half pound of tempura-battered Pacific Red Snapper fillet with shoestring fries ($12); the Prawns & Chips is six massive tempura-fried prawns with the fries ($14); and the Combination—snapper, scallops and prawns—with fries ($14). OFT serves the biggest, juiciest, crispiest shrimp on the waterfront. And you can’t have a seafood house without crab cakes. OTH offers its homemade panko-crusted Dungeness & Lump crab cakes served over a chipotle soy aioli sauce ($11).

OTH takes the Embarcadero’s fried-only philosophy and lightens and brightens it with a fresh Asian flavor twist that turns classic seafood dishes into mouth-watering original treats. This is where Off The Hook takes off.

Fish entrees include the thick, premium fillets of Pacific Snapper, Pacific Salmon and Alaskan Halibut prepared in a unique-to-the-Embarcadero style one can only call “Off The Hook.” The snapper is pan-seared in a sauce verge with Pomme McAire potato cake, Aubergne caviar and root vegetable battons ($19). The halibut is pan-seared in a rich seafood broth with roasted bok choy, baby corn and shumai dumplings ($24). The house Cioppino is off the hook in quality and selection: crab (fresh), prawns (fat), scallops (large), clams (Manila), black mussel and Pacific Red Snapper in a rich sambal and ginger-infused seafood and vegetable broth ($25). Happen to be in the mood for a nice steak tonight? The New York steak is served charbroiled in a rich unagi sauce ($24), and Filet Mignon of charbroiled medallions and seared diver scallops served on crispy jasmine rice with an Asian sauce.

Off The Hook is something unique on the strip because it is also features a sushi bar manned by top area chefs, Jeff and Nogi. Of course, OTH offers all the classic rolls and sushi with several special fusion rolls designed to grab eyeballs and tastebuds. The Louisiana Love Roll is fried oyster and avocado inside, scallops and tobiko with ponzu outside (8 pcs./$9); the Georgia Peach Roll is tempura shrimp, unagi and cream cheese on the inside with peach, tempura flakes and avocado with eel sauce outside (8 pcs./$10); the Texas Gulf Roll is tempura prawn and asparagus on the inside and Cajun New York steak and spicy mayo outside (8 pcs./$11); the New York New York Roll has gourmet smoked salmon, cream cheese and  apples on the inside and sliced onion on the outside (8 pieces/$12); and the Alaskan King Roll is spicy krab, salmon and asparagus on the inside with King Salmon, ikura, avocado and spicy mayo (8 pcs./$12). If spicy tuna roll is your thing, ask for the Spicy Tuna Roll “Giovanni style” with spicy mayo and spring onion (8 pieces/$8). The rolls are affordable, and of course, the chef will make anything you ask for any way you like it, and you can gaze at the bay from the sushi bar while the sushi melts in your mouth.

Make no mistake, Off The Hook has something for everyone. For the lunch crowd there are burgers and sandwiches. For the nibblers and dabblers the appetizers are a great way to sample the great shrimp; for example, the Tempura shrimp with sweet aioli, (3 pcs./$8); BBQ Baby Back Ribs ($10); and panko-fried crab cakes with aioli sauce ($11). The house soups include New England clam chowder, miso and wonton. Desserts as rich and colorful as the sushi find their equal in the chocolate duo of Chocolate Ganache on a sable and a chocolate brownie with a Greek caramel sauce, shochu sabayon and black pepper grilled peach ($8 each).

Diners shouldn’t confuse Off The Hook for a sushi bar restaurant or, for that matter, a Japanese restaurant. In fact it is neither. At heart, OTH is exclusive fine dining, particularly its fresh fish elegantly, smartly prepared in many number of rather tantalizing ways. It offers a wide range of lunch and dinner options with fresh, healthy Asian accents that make OTH anything but your stereotypical sushi or Japanese restaurant. The sushi rolls are reasonably priced while the taste and quality are unexpectedly high. The risk to be different wouldn’t mean much at all if Off The Hook didn’t offer the quality it does.

Off The Hook isn’t the best Asian-American fusion restaurant on the Central just because it’s the only Asian-American fusion restaurant on the coast, rather because the ocean-to-you-fresh seafood is superior, the Thai prawn a shrimp lover’s fulfillment, and because the details that make a great restaurant great are all there. They are found right away in the touch and texture of the batter and fry that define a seafood grill, as well as in the quality ingredients used in the preparation of sauces, broths and marinades. Off The Hook is the best new restaurant to open on Morro Bay’s Embarcadero in 2012.

Off The Hook, 833 Embarcadero, Morro Bay (across from Sun ‘N Buns Bakery). Open for sushi, lunch and dinner Tues. – Thurs. 11:00 am – 9:00 pm; Fri. – Sat. 11:00 am – 10:00 pm and Sunday from 11:00 am – 9:00 pm Telephone: (805) 772-1048. Visit OTH for special deals and daily specials on Facebook at:

Giovanni DeGarimore: Wizard of the Waterfront

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If you want to meet one of the most successful businessmen in San Luis Obispo County, you will have to travel down to the waterfront in Morro Bay, to the historic Embarcadero, where the sea lions bellow, pelicans swoop low, and fishermen haul their catch on to the docks with cloud-swept Morro Rock behind them.

And you may have to walk half the length of the Embarcadero to find him, because he could be anywhere from the newly-opened Off The Hook restaurant, where he consults, to Giovanni’s Fish Market & Galley restaurant and STAX Wine Bar & Bistro, which he owns, to find someone who’s seen him, and you might only find that they’ve been looking for him as well.

Now some might say he’s elusive, and he may appear that way to anyone who doesn’t know his busy working rhythm and pace, but those who know him well know he’s a man of constant motion, and if you’re in constant motion, too, you’ll have no trouble finding him on the Embarcadero, where the bay meets the Pacific Ocean at the end of the continent, one of the most beautiful perches in the entire country.

So if you think finding Giovanni DeGarimore—Gio to his close friends—isn’t easy then you’d be doubly surprised by his openness and warm smile when you do catch up to him. He connects easily with people, and it’s impossible to talk to him very long without feeling his burning passion for his work, for good food, the ocean, and for Life with a capital “L” in general. Clear-eyed, congenial, articulate, he springs from tradition and represents the “New Guard” on Morro Bay’s tourist-fed Embarcadero. At 38 he’s young and a pier veteran, part of and highly respectful of waterfront history, and a sharp, up-to-date entrepreneur with a unique vision for the future of Morro Bay dining. His European sensibility, taste and sophistication sparkle on the Embarcadero where new ideas don’t always find an easy landing.

“My family’s been on the waterfront since the ’70s,” Gio said. “Central Coast Seafoods, which is the wholesale part of my family business, started here in 1973. Right before that my dad was an abalone diver. For 17 years he was diving abalone between here and Santa Barbara until one day my mom looked at him and said, ‘Hey, Mike, why don’t you try fishing something else?’ He said, ‘What do you want me to fish?’ and she said, ‘Why don’t you fish the fisherman? There are restaurants out here that need seafood…’

“I can’t help but think that she got that from a popular Bible verse where it says: ‘Go make fishers of men.’ She passed when I was eight, so I can’t ask her if that’s what she meant, but I have a good feeling that she did because she knew the Bible inside and out. So the translation was: ‘Fisher, go fish the fishermen.’ And he did. He realized he could start buying the fish. My dad just has this innate ability to run business. He’s the best businessman I’ve ever met. Everything I know about business I attribute to him.

“People now come to me,” he said. “That why I’m currently doing consulting for businesses. Because they want my knowledge, and I learned it all from my dad.”

After 17 years diving abalone, his father, Mike, opened Central Coast Seafoods, then the Finicky Fish I, Finicky Fish II, Finicky Fish III, the Fish Cooker in Paso Robles and the Avila Bay Seafood Company, and the family business grew “very big.” As his dad grew closer to retirement, they downsized to Central Coast Seafoods and Giovanni’s. Gio’s brothers ended up with Central Coast Seafood and he ended up with Gionvanni’s, which his father started in 1985. By the numbers that queue up there almost every day, Giovanni’s is the most popular tourist destination on the Embarcadero.


Growing up on the waterfront


Gio wasn’t actually born on the waterfront, but it was close. At that time, his father and mother were running Finicky Fish II, which is where the Thai Bounty boat next to Tognazzini’s used to be.

“My dad came back one day and there was a note on the door that said: ‘Gone to have a baby. Be back tomorrow.’ My mom had put that note on the door. She went off, had me in the hospital, and she was back to work at that little fish-shaped Finicky Fish building the next day, and I was in a wooden fish box in the back. My crib was a wooden fish box with rope handles and it had a little blanket lined in there, and I was there when I was one-day old. So I’ve been in the fish business since I was one-day old, and I started working as soon as I could see over the counter, probably eight years old when I started selling shrimp cocktails, cleaning abalone shells.”

Gio describes growing up on the waterfront in the ’70s as “kind of surreal. I have very vivid memories,” he said, “of grabbing a fresh baguette and a smoked salmon collar from the new smoker.

“I’d open the smoker and steal a salmon collar out and grab a piece of sourdough bread, and I’d grab my fishing pole and tackle box and go under the docks and fish for perch and smelt all day long, eating my bread and smoked fish. That’s what I did, day in and day out. I remember Mitch the manager would get so mad. ‘Don’t open the smoker!’ he said. ‘You’re letting all the smoke out!’”

In his teen Gio moved over to Finicky Fish III in Atascadero, where he lives, and that’s when he started cooking in the kitchen, making fish & chips when he was about 14 or 15. He began managing the restaurant by the time he was 18.

About eight years ago, Gio took over Giovanni’s and the marine fuel dock where they unload the fish—some to be exported to Japan, some shipped fresh back east, some shipped “anywhere in the world” as the sign advertises in the Fish Market. As established as Giovanni’s was, as prepared as he was for the job, it was still a daunting task riddled with expectations.

“Well, first thing, God, I had such big shoes to fill,” Gio said. “Here was my dad, my hero, the best businessman I ever knew. It was like, I’ve got to do this right! I mean, the whole world’s looking at me. He’s looking at me, more importantly. By that time my daughter was looking to me. So trying to be a role model for my daughter, trying to live up to my father’s expectations, and then trying to live up the community’s expectations, it was a huge burden on my shoulders.

“But I knew that my dad I put good procedures in place—I’d watched him my whole life. The business really was running itself in a good, healthy way for several years before I bought it, so I knew that as long as I didn’t go changing everything for the worst it would be fine.”


Hands-on, plugged in, taking off


“That being said, I’m never good enough just sitting on my laurels. I’m never OK with the status quo,” Gio said. Under pressure to now lead the business, not just manage it, his next-generation ingenuity began to emerge. As soon as he took over, the first thing he did was to start a Website. They didn’t even have Internet service then.

“This was only eight years ago so you can imagine, we were behind the gun,” he said. “I started with a small website that cost me about $800. It was really basic but it had pictures and you could order seafood by calling. It said on the website, ‘Want an order of seafood to go, call us.’ They’d call, we’d take their credit card number over the phone; we’d make them a package and take it up to the Morro Bay Mail Center and ship it off. We were doing, oh, three-four a month.

“Yesterday we sent out 50 boxes, and during the holidays we do around 100 boxes a day, so we have FedEx and UPS trucks that come to our business every day and we ship from here to Maine every day.”

They ship everything from live local Dungeness crabs, live local spot prawns, local sablefish, local rockcod, local halibut when in season, local tuna and local swordfish right now.

“This is local fish that we unload across our own dock. We cut it in our own house, we filet it, put it in a box, and send it off to Connecticut tomorrow—never frozen—and that’s why people love it. It’s from the boat to their door in one day. They love it and it works. So we’re seeing huge growth right now. We’re up 37% this year on our Internet sales alone.”

Gio was just starting to tap the Internet. Social media was beginning to take off and he was all over it.

“Social media wasn’t even really around eight years ago,” he said. “So I started that as soon as it was available. I just wanted to kind of put my twist on Giovanni’s, the next generation, if you will. My dad was very old school. You know, we had a list of phone numbers for people who wanted tuna when it was tuna season. Obviously I automated all that process so it’s on an email signup form. You get notification in your email box when the tuna boats come in. Then email moved on to social media.

“Now it’s Facebook, now you don’t even have to wait to check your email when you get home, now it’s on your phone. So you’ll be at work and say, oh, ‘look the tuna boat’s in at Giovanni’s, $299 for tuna. Let’s go there on the way home.’ It’s helped us succeed and grow during an economy of flat-at-best sales for most people. We’re just starting to see the economy slightly rebound but a lot of people are happy to be flat. We’ve actually shown positive growth every year since I’ve taken over… Every business in America should be doing this…”

Gio doesn’t claim the cutting edge. He recognizes there are certainly better technologies, but as far as making e-commerce work and applying the basic tools with staggering success, “I’m in the forefront,” he said. “I like to go with what I know works, but there’s a lot of people who just don’t take advantage of social media and marketing. It’s a very powerful tool. It equates to, for me, between email and social media, hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in sales.

“That’s more than some businesses do in their storefront. I do more on the Internet than a lot of businesses do in their whole store. For me that’s kind of a safety net because say a tsunami came and wiped Giovanni’s out, I would still have that Internet business. I could work that out of a warehouse inland. I could just come pick up the fish from here and Santa Barbara and truck it to Atascadero and ship it out.”

Clearly, between the Web, email and social media, Gio has built a strong next-generation platform for Giovanni’s to thrive on into the future. But he took it one step further. He began to use Facebook as a popular canvas to apply the same colorful philosophy he applies to serving food to customers in his restaurant—with sometimes instant results.


A taste palate of many colors


“The first thing we do is we eat with our eyes, then we smell, then we eat,” he said at Off The Hook, the exciting new Asian-American fusion restaurant that George Leage has opened on the Embarcadero, and for whom Gio is a key consultant. “You can get one of those senses right away on social media. On your phone you get a picture of tonight’s dinner special, which is char-grilled red snapper with fresh vegetables and potatoes. And you can see the picture of the snapper and the vegetables and the herbs. It just looks so good, you know, you see the char marks on it, it looks great. The sushi rolls they have so much color and texture and crunch. You see the vegetables and the shrimp tails sticking out and the gobo root, and the green stuff, the white stuff and the red stuff all sticking out, and it’s like, oh, I want to eat that! And it makes people want to come in here…”

Gio is the epitome of the hands-on businessman. To say he is very involved in the details of the look and taste of the food he serves would be an understatement. He is often found in the kitchens he runs or consults, judging the plating, tasting the food for quality, flavor and consistency, and talking with chefs and staff. Gio sets the bar high. He know what customers expect, and if something isn’t right with the food or the presentation he will demand it be fixed and make sure it is. He is detail oriented, thankfully, he is so detail-oriented that everything he touches makes whatever he’s involved in better.

“I don’t come from a strong culinary background, but I feel that I have a strong culinary sense,” he said. “I learned a lot at home, I learned a lot in the family businesses, and I’ve acquired a niche for spotting good food. Again, it comes down to: it needs to look visually stunning. If it looks visually stunning and doesn’t taste visually stunning, you’re missing part of the component. It doesn’t work. A plus B has to equal C. So half of it is look and the other half is taste. Then from a business point of view there’s the cost involved, but yeah, I want to be visually stunning.”

It is not OK in business to be average these days, he said. “You’ve got to be above and beyond what your competitors are doing. People don’t want average anymore, they want more than what they expect. It’s perceived value versus expectations. With high expectations come high expectations, so if your prices are expensive you better wow people. For me, I want people to not just pick me because I’m the default answer, I want them to seek me out. And you do that through beautiful plates and great product.”

Gio talks about the value of having “the trifecta in restaurants,” found, for example, at Giovanni’s. “For the class and category that Giovanni’s is, we serve a large portion, the quality’s great, and the price is cheap. Now if you think about that, with any restaurant you go to, if you get two of the three you’re lucky. You usually get one of the three. But at Giovanni’s I believe our food’s really good, big portions, good taste, cheap price—that’s the trifecta. If you can get three that’s what makes you successful in the restaurant business—it’s very difficult to achieve that.

“We always had that,” he said. “I fine-tuned some things…”

Gio’s “fine-tuning” led to another major tilt in the business dynamic since he took over—he switched the emphasis more on quality than money, which, of course, has only served to grow the business.

“I brought the quality up a little bit. What that means is, I use a little bit better quality ingredients. I made a little less money but that’s OK. For me, money is not the most important thing in my life,” he said. “You see I’m dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, that’s what I wear every day. Money is not important to me, my reputation is more important than money…”

That’s why when it’s pointed out to him that Giovanni’s is, by all appearances, the most popular restaurant on the Embarcadero, he says right away, “Yeah, and it’s got my name on it so it has to be right. So, for me, whether I made an extra $1,000 a year by using a cheaper mayonnaise or going to a better mayonnaise I’d rather have the better product than save $1,000 a year, and there’s a fine line between those, especially when you’re in a startup business. Now, with Off The Hook I’d like to keep that same mantra, but as a startup business you have to be very aware of costs.”


STAX celebrates second anniversary


By 2010 Gio was looking to grow outward, and he found that opportunity just a few doors north from Giovanni’s when the lone tourist shop at the main intersection where sloping Beach Street meets the Embarcadero became vacant. After brainstorming all the possibilities, he tapped into one of his passions—fine wine—and STAX Wine Bar was born, a bold, classy outpost of wine country on the waterfront, bringing the best of inland Paso to the pier. Impact: Breakthrough. It immediately became the talk of the town, a town where change comes slowly and different is almost dangerous. In the two years since startup, STAX has naturally evolved from a wine bar into a Euro bistro serving tantalizing Euro-style lunch and dinner entrees, vibrant wine and food pairings, and daily specials that a glass or two of world-class wine turn into stolen moments transported to a brilliant, little out-of-way four-star restaurant somewhere in France, Italy or Spain.

Unlike Giovanni’s with more than 25 years under its belt, STAX started from “scratch” as a “labor of love,” and that’s exactly the way Gio wanted it.

“I didn’t open STAX for the money,” he said. “I opened STAX as a challenge to myself, to prove to myself, to my dad, to the world, that I could do something that wasn’t fish. And I did it just to prove that I could start from scratch and do something that wasn’t my father’s doing, that had nothing to do with my dad.”

Gio’s thoughts ran deep as he swung his plan into action. “There are so many people who think that I was raised with a silver spoon in my mouth. Nothing is further from the truth. We had wooden fish boxes for chairs at our dining room table. We always ate the leftover fish that was going bad. We had the least of the least at our house. That’s what it takes to start up a business, especially in the ’70s and ’80s.”

At the time he conceived of STAX, Gio had a real passion for wine. Seafood and wine go well together, and he had a vision. “I wanted to create an atmosphere that I would enjoy going to, somewhere with leather couches, dark interior, wood floors, granite and marble tops, where you could have a good glass of wine and some cheese and bread for not a lot of money. I thought, there’s nothing like that around here. Paso’s doing it like crazy. Why can’t Morro Bay have something like that?

“So I created an atmosphere that I would want to go to. Turns out everybody in Morro Bay agreed with me and thought the same thing. People love to go there.”

STAX may not be the money-maker that Giovanni’s is, but it wasn’t designed to operate that way. While Giovanni’s is geared to the mainstream and is the gold-standard business model in the tourist district, STAX is easily the most ambitious restaurant on the Embarcadero, a huge leap forward in local dining and sophistication, drawing fine wine and dining enthusiasts to the Embarcadero where ocean sunsets behind Morro Rock provide the master’s touch to a one-of-a-kind dining/entertainment experience.

“We have 130 bottles of wine that you can walk in off the shelf, put it on your table and pour it. Not many places offer that. Typical wine bars have five, 10, 15, 20. I don’t remember the last bar I went in that had 130 bottles of wine that you could choose from, ranging from $14 a bottle to $214 a bottle—Cristal Champagne, Booker, Saxum, Alban’s Reva and Bodegas El Nido.”

“You can have great bottles of wine,” he said. “It’s not enough to have wine because you need to eat when you’re drinking, so it gave me another creative outlet for food. There are certain things I just can’t do at Giovanni’s. It just not that niche. STAX let me explore a little more my creativity, doing things like filet mignon crostinis with a basil pea stew, which is amazing. We couldn’t do that at Giovanni’s. Small plates that really wow your senses. They look good, they smell good, they taste good. We have rotating specials. I can do fresh crab cakes, I can do meat sandwiches, things that when I’ve traveled to Europe I can bring those back and recreate here at an inexpensive price. You can come in, have a plate of food and two glasses of wine for about $20. Where else can you get that?”

STAX celebrated its two-year anniversary on December 6 with a raucous, full-house wine-tasting party featuring Graham Beck Sparkling Wines and catering by Chef Charlie D. Paladin Wayne. The five-course sampler of dynamic food and wine pairings for $30 per person was an electric gourmet dining experience not to be found in Morro Bay before STAX came along to upset the applecart: Rose and caviar; Blancs and smoked salmon; Brut NV and Chef Creek oysters; Brut Zero 2005 with Maine lobster “BLT”; and finally Bliss Demi Sec and chocolate truffle. Stir in the hypnotic reggae vibrations of singer/guitarist Vance Fahie, a full restaurant in full vino bloom, and it’s clear that the focus of STAX is on the total experience, the fun factor, the accume of the whole package of great food, wine and entertainment you can’t find anywhere else on the coast.

STAX was a word twist on the three tall power plant smokestacks that loom over the waterfront. A friend came up with the name. “I wanted it to be very different than everybody else,” Gio said. “I wanted to be a little modern, a little edgy, a little current, if you will, and so that’s why we have the X instead of the CKS.”

If the name works it’s because Gio works and works hard. It is not uncommon to see him sweeping the sidewalk outside STAX. In fact, on his Facebook page, Gio lists his employment at STAX as “Janitor, Morro Bay, 2010 to present.”

“Well, I am the janitor sometimes,” he said. “That’s the thing. To open a business you’ve got to be the janitor. You’ve got be willing to do everything, and that’s how you become the best boss, by doing everything. I spent five-eight years as a fry cook for my dad. You’ve got to start at the bottom. I was a dishwasher for years, I was a manager for years, I was a fry cook for years, I opened the Fish Market for years, I was a fish cutter for yearsI did it all and that makes me uniquely qualified to be boss. So you can say, ‘Hey, you’re not doing that right’ or ‘Hey, you can do this better by doing that’—not because I’m pretentious and I think I know better; no, because I spent years and years doing your job before you did.”


Lessons learned, the road ahead


What does Gio do when he’s not working?

“Gio almost never isn’t working,” he said about himself, “but if I’m not working, I’m raising my daughter, and if I’m not doing that, I do try to make time to travel. I like to scuba dive, I’m a pilot in training so I fly from time to time—I have 200 landings under my belt—and I love to travel. I just got back from France and Spain. I spent some time in San Sebastian and Bordeaux for 10 days. I just had to get away… I need to see the world, taste the world… I eat. That’s all I do. Eat.”

A master cultural assimilator, he has only made a dent in the world he brings back to Morro Bay and translates into new food ideas for his restaurants. He passionately, relentlessly continues to pursue the best tastes and flavors in the world so he can bring them home alive. You won’t find these rareties on tour groups, so he makes his own way.

“I like to go where the locals are, so I go to the back alleys and eat where the locals are eating. I love Mexico, Mexico is like the other woman for me. I don’t know why I keep going back but I keep going back and I keep going back. I’ve been all over Mexico and I love it and I’ll continue to go there. I’ve been to Italy twice, I’ve been to Sicily, I’ve been to Greece, France, Spain. I want to go to Costa Rica soon. My bucket list is so long that if I don’t retire soon I’ll never get through it…”

Of all his accomplishments, Gio is proudest of “being a dad, for sure” and a son. Few so openly respect, love and honor their parents like Gio, and it says a lot about the man, his humility and his heart.

“My biggest accomplishment is being first and foremost a dad,” he said when asked. “My daughter Katherine is the love and inspiration of my entire life and she’s the reason I do everything I do is for her, because if I didn’t have her who would I be doing it for? She’s my everything. My other favorite accomplishment is making my dad proud, keeping the business successful, taking it to places that he says he never would have thought of, you know, ‘You’ve taken this business further than I ever could have dreamed’—that makes me proud, and so I’m happy that he’s happy, and I’m happy that we’re successful.”

Gio will always be grateful to his dad. His work ethic still drives Gio onward. Through his dad’s Herculean efforts, a network of thriving businesses grew with the times, supporting families and the next generation, and that success has also given Gio the priceless freedom to explore and evolve.

“Giovanni’s does one big thing more for me,” he said. “It allows me to express my creative outlets in other businesses. Opening STAX was $150,000. I wouldn’t have had that if I didn’t have Giovanni’s. Giovanni’s allows me travel, it allows me to open other businesses, it allows me to express myself, so for that I’ll always be thankful to my dad because he gave me not only the business ethic but a really good tool to make money. And I’ve learned how to make it make quite a bit of money.”

Amazingly, as young as he is, as successful as he is today, Gio is already beginning to plan ahead for retirement. “I’m probably going to follow in my father’s footsteps and at some point probably start downsizing again. My time is worth more than my money. That’s another one of my mantras. My daughter is 13. Time’s flying by. I want to hold on and cherish as much time as I can, so I don’t want to wait until I’m too old to retire. My dad made that mistake. Some of the greatest lessons we learn from people are what not to do. And so while the greatest things I learned from my dad were what TO do, one of the most valuable things I learned from my dad was what NOT to do. He waited too long to retire. He’s not in good health. He can’t travel. I want to be able to travel.”

His goal is to start retirement at around 45 by perhaps initially taking off a week a month, then the next year two weeks a month. “Maybe by the time I’m 50 I’m only working one week a month, just transition into it. Because I want to see the world and I want to see the world with my daughter, and the person I’m with.”

Meanwhile, the DeGarimore family flourishes, embracing the ocean and all that it provides. It seems like it was always that way with the DeGarimores and the sea, in one form or another. In the beginning, the family came from “somewhere between Sicily and Genoa” as Gio remembers being told. His dad was an abalone diver and his grandfather ran a couple of small retail shops in Morro Bay. The Captain’s Cargo was in Morro Bay for many years, selling fishing and nautical items. He originally had the Whale’s Tail and also a little store called the Ship Store Deli on the Waterfront. Of course those are all gone now.

Today, his step brother, also named Giovanni, runs Central Coast Seafoods which was recently acquired by Santa Monica Seafoods. His other brother, Tony, runs Pier 46 Seafoods in Templeton in the Trader Joe’s shopping center. The brothers and their businesses are prospering.

“It’s fun that we’re all in the business, and to be honest I feel blessed to be part of the story. I’m one of the luckiest guys I know. I have a lot to be thankful for.”

At the end of the long day we call life, the philosophy that guides Gio is based on living life to the fullest. Losing his mother at a young age and watching his father work 12-14-hour days—once working nine straight months without a day off—has fueled his unquenchable appetite for living.

“The main thing is that life is short and you need to live it full throttle,” he said. “So live every day as if it’s your last year and that’s what I do. I realize first hand that life is precious and life is short. You don’t know how much time you’re going to get so you better do something with it while you’re here—and make a difference, make a change, and put your stamp on the world.”

And, like Gio, do it with flair.


Giovanni on Stopping PG&E’s Seismic Test: ‘Everything Was at Stake’


There was a distinct chill in the air in Morro Bay on the morning of August 14, and it wasn’t from the weather because every day is a beautiful day in Morro Bay, rain or shine.

Hundreds of miles north in Sacramento the State Lands Commission was holding a hearing to decide whether or not to approve PG&E’s Environment Impact Report and issue them a permit to begin blasting the ocean with 250dBs of high-intensity noise that would cause “significant and unavoidable” damage to abundant and flourishing marine life in Estero Bay, threatening endangered species, and the very future of Morro Bay itself.

The hearing and what could result from it was so important to Morro Bay, whose ocean backyard had been targeted as the primary test area, that it was transmitted via Skype video feed from Sacramento on to a meeting-room wall at the Inn at Morro Bay where it was screened before about 80 people.

Emotions were riding high. There was a palpable anguish in the room, an intense dread that bordered on the grim air surrounding a pending death in the family. During public comment, speaker after speaker, about 65 of them, reasoned, pleaded, argued, even commanded State Lands to deny PG&E a permit to bomb the ocean.

One of those speakers was Giovanni DeGarimore, owner of Giovanni’s Fish Market & Restaurant and STAX Bistro on the Embarcadero. He spoke with a fire in his gut and he spoke for the entire community when he questioned PG&E’s Environmental Impact Report.

“I heard a lot of slick talking at the beginning of this hearing from people that sounded a lot like politicians,” he said from the podium, his image enlarged on the screen, “but I’m just going to be real simple. Something stinks here. Looking at the big picture it just doesn’t sound right. The ‘taking’—whether you call it catching or killing or whatever you’re doing—of fish, baby sea otters, whales, turtles, fishermen, is not right. You’re going to be killing our community, you’re going to be killing our resources, and it’s not something I support. I’m not anti nuclear but I am anti-killing of our resources and killing of our fishing industry. It’s not right…

“We’re talking about baby sea otters, we’re talking about whales, we’re talking about fishermen, we’re talking about people. Let’s not ram this through. Let’s step back, let’s think about it. Let’s think about what’s good for the people and the environment.”

When the SLC accepted the EIR and delayed the actual permitting decision one week, not only was there no relief from the pressure, but the impact on Gio and the fishermen after the SLC approved the dangerous EIR was clearly emotionally devastating. One by one they filtered out into the parking lot in stunned silence. They just stood or sat and said nothing, staring out from anxious eyes that reflected the pain of their deepest fears being realized.

Flash forward to November 10. Almost three difficult months later, after the community, local fishermen and environmental activists joined forces to oppose PG&E’s 3D high-energy seismic testing, the California Coastal Commission voted 10 to nothing to deny PG&E a permit, and sent them packing with little philosophical wiggle room to return to reapply for a high-energy permit in 2013.

You could almost hear an entire town stand and cheer as one. Along with the rest of Morro Bay and neighboring coastal communities, and those throughout the state opposing ocean blasting for any reason, Gio celebrated this rarest of victories over PG&E and a run-amuck state and local government pushing the test. It was hard to believe and still is for those used to be on the losing end of trying to fight big companies and big government.

Looking at it from the Commission’s perspective, considering PG&E’s huge influence on government agencies, Gio found it “surprising that they did the right thing.”

“I applaud them for doing the right thing which might have seemed easy to us, but I guarantee you behind the scenes it wasn’t as easy as it seemed. At the end of the day the right thing happened, and because of the grassroots effort and because our voice, the people’s voice, got so strong, at the end of the day that’s what really made the difference, I’m sure of it. Because if this thing would have flown under the radar, under the media, it would have gone right through.

“I applaud them for unilaterally coming across the board and saying ‘absolutely not.’ And not ‘come back and try again.’ It was ‘No!’ and a firm no.”

The more he read about the test, the more he realized the impact was going to be devastating and far reaching—had it been allowed to move forward.

“Everything was at stake,” he said. “The worst-case scenario is they cleanse our ocean of any living life. In the best-case scenario they kill millions and millions of sea life. I mean, by their numbers… their best plausible number was millions and millions of fish. It was going to be horrific for the ocean.

“Look at the real numbers,” he said, “and now we’re talking hundreds of millions if not billions of fish and sea life and all the other things that they didn’t take into account, things that can’t swim away when they’re ramping up their power, like abalone, sea urchins, clams, mussels and scallops. And you’ve got to remember that each one of these little pieces affects the ecosystem because of the trickle-down effect, and it goes on and on and on.”

Any prospect of that happening was simply unimaginable and unacceptable to just about anyone that heard about it, except PG&E and the politicians.

“To be brutally honest,” Gio said, “this first caught my attention because it was going to affect me on a financial level because my business is solely seafood. I buy seafood, I sell seafood, I unload the boats that do the seafood, I put fuel in the boats that do the seafood. It was going to affect me in every aspect of my life. So when I first looked at it, I thought, wow, they’re going to put me out of business. I looked at it purely from an introverted standpoint, and at the time PG&E was offering me lots of money to quell me, if you will, and I started thinking about it. I negotiated with them and gave them numbers, and I looked at how much money it could cost me per day.

“But the more I started reading about it, and the more I started seeing how PG&E was really being disingenuous and dishonest, the more I realized that not only were these people not trustworthy, but for me it wasn’t about money anymore, and no matter how much money they offered me it wasn’t going to be enough. I knew that once I started speaking publicly against them, my chances of ever getting a claim with them would be non-existent.”

“So the day that I stood up and testified at State Lands I knew that all chances of getting money from PG&E was out the window, but at this point I didn’t care about money, because it was far bigger than just me now. This is about the environment, this is about the ecosystem, this is about where I live, and more than anything it just came down to right and wrong. At the end of the day it was an easy decision to jump on board with this and put all of my energy into it.”

As a result of his decision, his thinking changed in an unexpected way.

“I’ve never been a self-proscribed tree-hugger or environmentalist,” he said, “but God, I kind of get it now, and it felt good to do something right for the environment that didn’t really mean anything monetarily for me anymore. It was just the right thing to do and it felt good…”

Gio’s concerns about seismic testing didn’t end with the Coastal Commission’s ruling against PG&E on the 3D high-energy test.

“The one threat that really bothers me is the low-energy testing that’s been going on, it seems, without benefit of any permit that I can see. We don’t really know a lot about it. There certainly have to be some ramifications. The fishermen are telling me that the fish catch really seems off this last year… The whole time they’re out there doing this testing, what are they doing? They’ve sunk geophones, I believe, in the MPA. They must have gotten a permit to do that. It was all very low under the radar when all that started.

“We’re in line for a really healthy fish stock for all fish stocks here on the California coast. We need to keep people like PG&E away from doing things to disturb that, and there are other threats out there, too, but right now I think it’s a pretty safe area, as long as we can manage the environment.”

— Ed Ochs