The Global Gems of Robin’s of Cambria

At a magical intersection of the Pacific and the piney hills and dells just south of Hearst Castle, deep in the timeless, rustic heart of Cambria, thrives one of the finest international restaurants on the coast.

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At a magical intersection of the Pacific and the piney hills and dells just south of Hearst Castle, deep in the timeless, rustic heart of Cambria, thrives one of the finest international restaurants on the coast.

At first glance, one might think Robin’s was a lovely, vine-laced old home in Cambria’s historic East Village, and it once was – and still is. Robin’s continues to radiate that warm feeling because it was a home a long time before it became a restaurant, and owner Shanny Covey has cultivated that ambiance while also offering airy, contemporary, heated indoor and outdoor patio and garden dining.

But what truly sets Robin’s apart is the inspiring menu graced with intricate dishes that bring the world to little hidden Cambia. To trace the global influences and diverse flavors that illuminate Robin’s menu, one has to first understand that Robin’s is the sparkling reflection of the sophistication of its longtime owner and co-founder.

Raised in Singapore, one of the great food hubs of the world, Shanny moved to the US when she was 17. While studying at LSU she took the Greyhound west to meet a friend who was living and working in Cambria for the summer. Captivated by the beach and beauty of the area, she moved out to Cambria in the mid ’70s and met her former husband, Robin.

“He’s the reason we started Robin’s. The restaurant was named after him,” Shanny says. “He loved to cook and he loved to cook international food. He would learn how to make curries and different things like that.”

That international sensibility permeates all their dishes in one way or another. Curries are still a vital part of the menu. In fact, Robin’s menu hasn’t changed much over the years because people return for their favorites, and the menu is basically a collection of favorites.

“There’s a few things on the menu that have been there from day one, like a couple of the curries, the lamb curry, the curried chicken, the chows, and at lunch time the Mexican chopped chicken tacos – they’ve been on there for a long, long time. They’re very popular.

“We always have to have some staples on there that people come back time and time again for, like our salmon bisque. And then we have room to be creative and change other things out also. So it’s a nice balance.”

That’s why specialties like the salmon bisque (8 oz. $5/16 oz. $8), Crispy Vietnamese Spring Rolls vegetarian-style with tofu, kim-chee salad, chili oil and sweet chili sauce ($8) and Singapore Chicken Sate with pickled cucumber salad and spicy peanut sauce ($10) are carved in stone on the menu. At the same time you can also find an outrageously flavorful 100% natural angus-beef burger with tomato, grilled sweet onion, white cheddar, house sweet pickles and aioli, served with herb garlic fries ($13).

The dinner menu dazzles with an Ahi Tuna Poke with pineapple, chiles, coconut, sesame seaweed and siracha ($13), an All Natural Flat Iron Steak with garlic smashed potatoes, organic asparagus, crispy onions, cabernet peppercorn butter ($26); Slipper-Tail Lobster Enchiladas with lime crèma, avocado, white cheddar, tomatillo salsa verde, cumin black beans and brown basmati rice and cilantro-mint chutney ($21), Tofu Pad Thai Noodles & Prawns with cabbage, bok choy, green onions, cilantro, egg, bean sprouts, crushed peanuts, spicy tamarind soy sauce ($20), and four different curries: Roghan Josh, Indian lamb curry ($21); Tempeh Korma, Indian coconut curry with vegetables ($18); Thai Green Chicken in mild coconut curry ($19); and Malaysian Chicken in spicy coconut curry ($19).

A quick survey of some of the wealth of robust ingredients that go into their designer dishes, side dishes, salads , sauces, dressings, preserves, chutneys, butters and aiolis – all made from scratch – hints at the excellence of Robin’s. For example: the piquillo almond tapenade (with the Meze Plate); kim-chee (with the Spring Rolls); sambal aioli (with the Crusted Calimari); louie sauce (with the Crispy Crab Cake); ricotta salata (with the Grilled Tuna Asparagus Salad); house sweet pickles (with the Angus Burger); mango salsa (with the Halibut Tacos); candied pecans (with the Bloomsdale Spinach Salad); citrus pepita basmati rice (with the Grilled Sea Bass); saffron & dried fruit couscous with the Morrocan Duck Breast); sweet corn polenta (with the All Natural Pork Chop); and lemon thyme jus (with the Roasted Chicken).

Once the depth and richness of all the tastes and flavors blended into their “homecrafted global cuisine” are absorbed, the brilliance of Robin’s really hits home.

Shanny has set a high standard in both substance and style that has been refined over time and invigorated under Chef Michael Wood. But even in the beginning, before opening Robin’s, Shanny and Robin had established the direction they were headed in food quality.

“Before we opened the restaurant we owned a health food store, so eating fresh, healthy foods was always a priority for my husband, and it continues to be a priority, not just for myself but also for my guests,” she says. “I want to feel good about what I’m serving my guests.”

The health food store was located on Main Street, where Indigo Moon is today.

“We had a little café. People could take food out in the garden or to go. Then at one point we held once-a-month sit-down dinners, community, family-style in one of the rooms there. That was probably the birth of the restaurant per se. We developed a following of people who would sign up ahead of time and come to dinner. It was a really great experience.”

When they first opened the restaurant in 1985 it was on Bridge Street. Then they moved to Burton Drive to an adobe home built in the ’30s by a former concrete construction foreman who worked for W. R. Hearst. The original living room, foyer and fireplace are still there.

So from health food store to café, from Bridge Street to Burton Drive, Robin’s has always been committed to home and healthy food, and now with “farm to table” more popular than ever, the restaurant is riding the new wave.

“It’s definitely become more and more popular over the last five to 10 years, and as far as we’re concerned at Robin’s, we’ve always been farm to table. We’ve always gone to market from the health-food-store days and from when we started the restaurant,” Shanny says.

Robin’s has always been ahead of its time, and now almost 30 years later the world is catching up with them. Now, more and more people want to eat as organic or natural and fresh as they can get.

“We’ve always tried to source local as much as possible, especially with our produce, going to the markets. And when we go to the markets we always search out unsprayed and organic first.”

Robin’s goal is to create an enjoyable living room/patio dining experience and service for their special guests that match the quality of the food.

“We’re very dedicated to providing hospitality to our guests from the heart. Our purpose is to deliver warm hospitality and delicious global cuisine,” Shanny says. “I get excited, my staff gets excited, when we can make people get excited and enthused about the things that they taste here, the international flavors, and we want to make them feel warm and welcome.”

Shanny and her staff have made the restaurant a home away from home. “The ambiance fits what we do here because we want people to feel at home, the home that they come to when they join us for a meal.”

And it will be a meal with global roots, made with a world of goodness in the ingredients, prepared with an elegance, flair and attention to detail found in the finest restaurants in America.

“I feel that’s what makes us unique,” Shanny says. “We’ve gone from our tag line of ‘home cooking from around the world’ to ‘international fare,’ ‘farmer’s market fresh’ – it’s all about providing an eclectic experience to our guests. We can have a group of four people come in and they can all have some different dish from around the world, and I’ll be excited about it.”

Every Sunday in the summer Robin’s presents live music as part of their “Summer Nights in the Garden” series. They prepare a tapas menu, feature a local winery, and alternately offer mellow vocals, jazz, violin, and the flamenco-style guitar of LA-based Robert Longley.

“They’re magical evenings in the beauty of the garden,” she says. The luxurious gardens have also attracted local artists, and now Robin’s hosts Wednesday morning art sessions for those with paint, brush, canvas and easel.

The drive is a big part of the fun, one of the most scenic in the country, and well worth it from any point in the county. And it’s fun when you get there. Evergreen Cambria is an important, star-crossed California coastal town because of its central location – halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco on spellbinding Highway 1 between Morro Rock in Morro Bay, miles of ocean and beaches, and Hearst Castle, just south of Big Sur. It’s also important because of its unique land and ocean resources. Moonstone Beach in Cambria is a great place to view migrating whales, sea otters, elephant seals, and glorious California sunsets.

Entering Cambria Village for the first time is like stumbling into a western town from a bygone era – it’s even got a Main Street, a general store, antique shopping and local shops, but there’s much more to it. Take a look around and you will discover that Cambria is a contemporary oasis for excellent, high-quality restaurants, paced by Robin’s, a rich California-Asian garden of fusion delights in full bloom where the wide ocean meets the tall pines.

Robin’s Restaurant, 4095 Burton Drive, Cambria, California 93428. Hours: Open daily. Lunch Monday-Saturday 11:00 a.m. – 3:50 p.m.; Early Dinner 4:00 p.m. – 4:50 p.m.; Dinner Nightly 5:00 p.m. – 9ish p.m.; Sunday Brunch 11:00 a.m . – 3:20 p.m. Telephone: (805) 927-5007. Web:,,

CalCoastNews Misfires Against Torres, Again

EDIT (4/20): An astute reader added that the CAPSLO budget for homeless services is estimated at $2-3 million, not $60 million as CalCoastNews claimed. Here is their 2012 audit.

CalCoastNews published a new article on Friday, April 19 titled, “San Luis Obispo’s homeless barred from services.” The article reignites the claim that some of the homeless are prohibited from utilizing Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo (CAPSLO)’s services. Like the article they published nearly a year ago, which included similar accusations that were made by a non-credible source, CalCoastNews published a misleading article. Here are the claims CCN has made (in bold) with our corrections.

The homeless are required to follow a set of rules imposed under the tenure of Dee Torres, homeless services coordinator. If the homeless don’t follow the rules, they are suspended or barred from receiving help.

Torres is not solely responsible for managing and enforcing rules. The Prado Day Center is managed by Shawn Ison and the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter is managed by Della Wagner. Torres works with Ison and Wagner and collaborate on decisions regarding clients of CAPSLO’s homeless services.

Peggy Fowler, a former 20-year employee CAPSO’s homeless services, says the refusal to provide food to homeless barred from services is not only cruel, but also increases the likelihood someone will resort to stealing in order to eat. “Suspensions from homeless services are for violation of the rules which include throwing a cigarette butt on the ground or arriving five minutes early,” Fowler said. “I felt that making someone sleep in the dirt for failing to do a chore is wrong.”

The ROCK cannot independently verify Fowler’s subjective statements. As we reported previously, we looked into the nature of these allegations. “Throwing a cigarette butt on the ground” or “arriving five minutes early” are not grounds for suspension or banishment from homeless services, according to CAPSLO policies. Disciplinary action such as suspension and banishment require repeated and severe offenses, which we address below.

Taking food to homeless outside the Prado Day Center is prohibited because that circumvents the incentive for the homeless to enter case management. CalCoastNews didn’t cite the primary motivation behind these rules, which directly coincide with case management. Their goal is not, as CCN says, to “keep people homeless.” It’s the opposite. The goal is to encourage service recipients to be independent and not rely on services for an indeterminable amount of time. CAPSLO’s policies, which strongly push for client responsibility and independence, are commonplace among homeless shelters across the country.

The rules include a ban on giving food to homeless persons who have been suspended from the program, entering the Prado Day Center through the driveway on foot and failing to control the physical tics and other behaviors resulting from medical conditions or mental illnesses.

CalCoastNews omitted substance abuse as a reason clients are barred from homeless services. According to officials, Prado Day Center has a limited number of volunteers that assist in the shelter’s day-to-day operations, and they’re not trained to handle people with severe mental illness — those who exhibit a strong tendency to behave violently, thus posing a threat to other clients — and substance abusers. According to CAPSLO’s policies, clients who want to take advantage of CAPSLO’s homeless services must enroll in case management; clients going through case management must also be alcohol and drug-free. “Physical tics and other behaviors” do not accurately describe how one is disqualified from partaking in homeless services.

On 920 KVEC’s “Hometown Radio” with Dave Congalton, CalCoastNews’ writers have complained about how much funding CAPSLO receives compared to other homeless shelters and services. However, officials have repeatedly gone on the record to push for detox and mental health services, services that could help rehabilitate those who suffer from problematic mental and substance issues. These vital services require funding. Yet CalCoastNews has explicitly communicated their intent to deprive CAPSLO of funding — some of that would go toward helping those who would otherwise be barred from services.

If a homeless person fails to follow Torres’ rules, she bars them from receiving meals and a place to sleep and shower, according to the program’s rules and dozens of citations CCN staff have viewed. Many of those barred are refused services for months or years because they are unable to make it through a laborious readmission process Torres has put into place, Fowler said.

To date, CalCoastNews has not shown any of the “dozens” of citations from people barred from CAPSLO services. CalCoastNews doesn’t explain the “laborious readmission process” to readers, but states that Torres is the primary enforcer, which is inaccurate. The readmission process involves a drug test to show that the person seeking readmission is sober. Medical records and documentation must show that the person seeking readmission is no longer a danger to anyone else. Without evidence to substantiate her claims, Fowler’s statements are purely subjective and incendiary.

CalCoastNews have spoken to several ex-employees who The ROCK has verified were terminated from their positions at CAPSLO. CAPSLO policy prohibits disclosure of employment records, so the specific causes for their termination is not public knowledge. CalCoastNews has repeatedly declined to disclose their sources’ termination, which would provide objectivity and allow readers to question their sources. Similarly, CalCoastNews originally did not disclose that one of their sources, Ralph Almirol, physically abused Torres and had a criminal record that spanned nearly 20 years. The website has a long history with lack of transparency, non-disclosure and willful deprivation of context.

One rule strictly enforced by CAPSLO prohibits the homeless from coming within an eighth of a mile, or 660 feet, of the Prado Day Center between 4 p.m. and 8:30 a.m. and within an eighth of a mile of the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter between 7:00 a.m. and 5 p.m. Torres enforces the policy because her employees are afraid of the homeless, so she wants the homeless out of the area when employees are coming and going, [former employee Estella Bonds] said.

As we reported on February 18, CalCoastNews does not mention hours of operation for Prado Day Center, which would easily explain why CAPSLO prohibits homeless from entering the facility or loitering in the area. Prado Day Center is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. After the center closes, clients who need overnight shelter are sent by bus to the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter. The Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter operates exclusively during the evening hours and clients must vacate the premises by 7:30 a.m. The hours are readily available on the Friends of Prado Day Center and Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter websites. The claim made by Bonds is contrary to common sense.

The ROCK can confirm that corrections were e-mailed to CalCoastNews writers when they published these details previously, but they continue to publish misinformation.

In 2008, Torres’ boyfriend San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Adam Hill became the founding chair of the Homeless Services Oversight Council, a group with a plan to end homelessness in 10 years by promoting a 200-bed shelter to be managed by Torres. Those staying at the shelter are to be required to give 50 to 70 percent of their income to case management allegedly to be used to get them into housing.

The comment is wildly misleading. Sources familiar with Homeless Services Oversight Council activities reported that Hill, who started dating Torres in mid-2011 (not 2008, as CCN suggested), has recused himself from CAPSLO-related agenda items. This is confirmed in board minutes, which are public record and readily available by request. The website claimed that Hill voted to “provide government funding to CAPSLO,” but public records show otherwise.

The proposed homeless shelter, which was originally slated to be built on South Higuera St., has hit a series of community and bureaucratic roadblocks. At this stage, there has been little discussion on who would be managing the shelter, assuming the shelter will be constructed. There is no documentation indicating that Torres would be managing the shelter.

Several law enforcement agencies are looking into allegations that those managing the required savings accounts have been misappropriating the funds.

Law enforcement officials deny that they are looking into allegations of misappropriation — allegations which originated from CalCoastNews, not the site’s sources. In mid-February, CalCoastNews co-founder Dan Blackburn called into Congalton’s show and announced that he notified the Office of the Attorney General of the allegations and would be receiving a statement from them in a matter of days. No statement by their office was made. The ROCK contacted the Office of the Attorney General for comment. Were were told by staffers that they received no communication from Blackburn or any other writers working for CalCoastNews.

Officials told The ROCK that CalCoastNews has not come forward with evidence to substantiate the misappropriation allegations, even though the site recently started to solicit donations under the guise that the allegations were already proven to be true.

The Smokin’ Deep Sea Adventures of Tognazzini’s Dockside 3

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Tourists traveling Morro Bay’s Embarcadero north of Beach Street toward Morro Rock are often surprised to see a large white fishing boat in the parking lot with its raised bow pointing south, going nowhere.

Now the surprise inside of a surprise for tourists and locals alike is what’s become of the historical boat-shaped building, and how it’s been reconnected it with its origins while setting a fresh course in Morro Bay fish dining.

Originally a fish market in the ’70s, then a series of fish shacks, and most recently home of Thai Bounty, the landlocked two-story with a colorful history on the waterfront is now sailing under a new flag. It’s been remodeled and rechristened Dockside 3, joining the mini fleet of Dockside seafood restaurants owned by the seafaring Tognazzini clan – Mark, Bonnie, Leah and Marc.

What is this phenomenon, though, three Dockside restaurants within earshot of each other? There’s the original Tognazzini’s Dockside, one of the premier high-end seafood restaurants on the Embarcadero since 2004; Dockside Too, the scaled-down, outdoor fish-market hang-out with live music, since 2006; and now Dockside 3 since January — almost next door to each other. What does Dockside 3 offer that other Docksides don’t?

That’s the next surprise. Dockside 3 is a combination smokehouse, pub and oyster bar, and the eye-opening menu is welcome news to all diners and drinkers seeking exciting new fusions on the changing, contemporary Embarcadero.

“Our mainstay is our smoked product,” says Mark Tognazzini, who was born and raised in Morro Bay and has been an active commercial fisherman for 43 years. “We’re smokin’ five or six different fish — salmon, swordfish, albacore, scallops and shrimp. We’re also smokin’ tri-tip and chicken now, and they’re all ingredients in our tacos and wraps.

“So if you have a shrimp taco here it’s going to be a smoked shrimp taco. If you have an albacore taco it’s going to be a smoked albacore smoked taco, and if you have scallop ceviche it’s going to be smoked scallops. We’re also doing fresh clams, mussels and oysters.”

Captain Mark and Dockside 3’s head chef Edgar studied the art and craft of smoking with “Smoker Jim” Ruddell, the owner of Ruddell’s Smokehouse in Cayucos, and widely recognized as the rock star of smoking fish on the Central Coast.

“Jim Ruddell was absolutely instrumental in helping us get up to speed quickly on smoking,” says Mark. “He said, ‘here’s the machine to buy, here’s what to do, come on up to my place.’ Edgar and I went up there on three different occasions and spent hours with him, and he said, ‘The only thing you can’t have is my shrimp recipe.’”

They can’t give Jim enough credit for their smoking and what he’s done for them, although they do things a little differently, of course.

“Jim was an inspiration, a wealth of knowledge, and just so generous in sharing with us so we didn’t have to make some of the mistakes we could have made,” says Mark.

Friendship easily trumps competition with Mark and Jim. They both remember a time when “every port used to have a smokehouse,” says Mark, and they’d both like to see that time come back. “He was excited for us.”

Though there are some menu items in common with the other Docksides, Mark says “75% of what we do here is new menu, 25% old menu – we do our chowder here at Dockside 3. There’s certain things we do over here that emulate what we do over there.”

But where Dockside 3 undocks from its parental moorings is where it really takes off. Dockside 3 offers items that seafood gourmets won’t find anywhere else on the waterfront, rarely found treasures that are suddenly easily accessible, which means not having to go to a fancy restaurant to enjoy them, just drive up and walk in to people-friendly Dockside 3.

“We do clams casino here,” says Mark. “I don’t think anybody else on the waterfront does it, and it’s a home run. We’re doing some oysters with the mignonette sauce, which is a vinegar, peppery sauce, and different things you just don’t see very much.

“We have a pretty full menu at our other two facilities, but we always wanted to do something different.”

In Morro Bay, different is good. At Dockside 3, different is steamed clams in wine sauce ($11.95), oysters Rockefeller ($6.95 for three/$12.95 for six); clams casino ($6.95 for three/$12.95 for six); steamed mussels ($11.95); shrimp ($8.95) or scallop ceviche tostadas ($9.95); smoked tri-tip wrap ($9.95); and swordfish kabob ($5.95), to name just a few dishes of distinction.

Dockside 3’s most popular item is the tacos ($2.95 – $3.95 each) – smoked scallops, smoked shrimp, smoked swordfish, smoked albacore, smoked salmon, as well as smoked tri-tip and smoked chicken. Choices of sauces include chipotle, shrimp aoli, fish aoli and spicy hot. The sauces also dress the wraps ($8.95 – $12.95), which come in a choice of tomato, spinach or white tortilla.

Oysters on the half shell prepared different ways with different sauces – traditional cocktail-horseradish sauce, maisonette, ginger and champagne – are also popular. Along with the array of fresh smoked fish, the raw oysters and cherrystone clams (each $5.95 for three/$10.95 for six) are the corner shells of Dockside 3’s versatile menu.

“With our oysters you can have them raw, barbecued, smoked, Rockefeller or casino,” Mark says. “With our clams you can have them raw, barbecue, Rockefeller or casino.”

It’s this wide selection of tasty combinations that sets Dockside 3 apart from its established elders and everybody else on the waterfront – or off. That and the unexpected rewards of the smoked tri-tip, scallops and swordfish, and after seeing how good the smoked tri-tip turned out they’re now trying out smoked turkey for sandwiches served in the main Dockside.

“It has its own little personality,” says Bonnie Tognazzini about the cozy quarters of Dockside 3. “We’re just about three months old, and so it’s still developing, which is why the menu is not set in stone yet. We’re finding the things that are working. We’re still playing with it and having fun with it.”

The Tognazzinis have renovated the inside of the restaurant, always a tiny space, and brought it up to date while retaining its original character. Six classic black bar stools pull up to a sparkling new oak-veneer bar top where diners can watch their dishes prepared in an open kitchen in a rather novel environment.

“I like really like to sit here and watch the guys cook,” says Bonnie. There’s something about watching them cooking your meal that I find quite entertaining, like watching a cooking show.”

The kitchen is miniaturized and efficient, and they’ve definitely made the most of limited space; it required specialty equipment that had to fit or was made to fit. Packed into a very small area are a smoker and standard grill. The smoker, custom built out of Wisconsin, is identical to Smoker Jim’s but about two-thirds the size because a full-size unit wouldn’t fit.

With the intimacy and activity of an American sushi bar, Dockside 3’s fish-market-to-your-plate experience is magnified by the cheerful pub atmosphere. There’s the bar stools and bar top. There’s a TV for that sports-bar effect for those following the big game. Their huge selection of draft beers on tap ($2.50 a glass, domestic) has helped make Dockside an irresistible destination for seafood specialties and endless brew.

“We’re not pretentious here,” Mark says. “We’re a pub, and our most expensive beer is $3.95. We have 16 on draft and another 35 in the bottle – 50 beers in all.”

Marc Tognazzini, Captain Mark’s son and partner, helped upgrade the interior woodwork and created valuable outside dining space by building several tables and chairs. At night they light the outdoor fire pit to chase away the chill.

Dockside 3, 1245 Embarcadero, Morro Bay, California 93442. Telephone: (805) 772-8130. Hours: Open daily 12 p.m. to 9 p.m. or earlier depending on season and reason.

40 Years of Sunshine

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Texas-native Greg Barnard, 35, was a negative five years old when Sunshine Health Foods opened 40 years ago on Morro Bay Blvd. in Morro Bay. Mr. Barnard is the third owner. He bought it from the second owner for whom he worked about three years. He bought the store in 2006, and in six years he’s taken it to the next level – becoming the best health food store and restaurant on the coast.

Now, not only is Sunshine the top destination on the coastline for fresh, organic produce, it is also boasts a new jewel, the best – and healthiest — restaurant on the street, the Shine Café, which opened last July.

Barnard had been no stranger to the industry before buying Sunshine. His previous jobs in college had been working in health food stores. He noticed when he moved to the area in 2000 that Sunshine was for sale and he filed it away.

“I had come out to help some friends from Colorado open a business,” says Barnard. “I’d worked at two other health food stores before, but I didn’t necessarily have the intention to stay in the industry. I liked it but I had actually a better opportunity, and that’s what brought me out to the coast.”

He attended Texas State University for business, but he also participated in recreational activities there, and worked at the school’s recreation center running outdoor educational programs such as kayaking, rafting and mountain-biking trips. His friends on the coast were opening a European-style youth hostel and needed someone to run their outdoor activities. They called him up about a year and a half after he’d finished his degree and told him to move out.

“I didn’t have a whole lot going on,” he says. “I was working at a health food store in Austin, and it sounded great. So I came out here and I was helping those guys, and living with them, and I realized the project that they were starting to work on was going to take a lot longer than anticipated, so I started working at New Frontiers because that was the kind of the experience I had.” He worked for New Frontiers on and off for close to three years.

“I’d been trying to work here because I like the small model, but they didn’t have the money to hire anyone and they were kind of doing it themselves,” he says. “So then I went to South America and came back, and at that point they’d grown enough take me on nine hours a week. They gave me three shifts three hours apiece, and then it just started snowballing from there and I started working a lot more.

“I knew in the back of my head that at one point they’d tried to sell, and you know if they tried to sell at one point, that’s always probably going to be an option later on down the road. So I kind of took that job knowing that they had tried to sell in the past, and that might be, at least around here, the only way it could happen (for me). The only option was for someone willing to sell to me. And I didn’t have a ton of money.”

For some, relationships are just as important, or even more important, than money, and that human connection paid off for Barnard. “Because I had developed a great relationship with Bill (Nicholson) who’s the old owner here — he’s kind of like a dad to me out here — he took the little tiny bit of money that I had down and he carried the note over five years. Otherwise I would have never been able to make a move like that. So that was great. I just paid him off last January.”

The Rise of Shine

Last July, after investing a lot of work and considerable expense, the Shine Café opened next door to their shipping and receiving office and store. They originally had the café in the back of the store. The room that became the new café was essentially behind the old café.

”When I bought this store, we would just sublease the café,” he explains. “It wasn’t part of what I purchased. It was operating independently in the back, and, to be honest, I feel like that’s what makes it so unique, and (what) makes it have so much character now is that it’s the culmination of (many years of store history).

“I can remember as far back as eight different owners of the café. I mean, it was just a little juice bar kind of place that made crackers for the longest time. And so it took all of those people. Everyone made a little contribution and had a couple good recipes and then the best of the best stuck and it just kind of kept rumbling. The recipes are kind of the greatest hits of all the people that came along.”

Shine also runs weekly specials. “Someone will have an idea for a special,” he says, “and if it’s just great then we’ll try to keep it around. We would have a lot more, but space has always been our issue, even over in the new place. That’s why we’ll rotate the specials and try to bring the popular ones back, but we don’t really have the space or capacity to add all of our favorite things on to the menu.”

Barnard didn’t own the café for a long time and didn’t intend to be in the restaurant business, but, he says, “I was tired of subleasing this little tiny spot that was in the back of our business that no one really understood that it was a different dynamic. No one understood that it was a separate owner. For all anyone cared it was just under one roof.

“So when that last gal hit the wall and was ready to sell, then we just bought it from her in essence to simplify things, and we were all of a sudden in the food service industry, and never really had a huge desire to be. But I felt like it was such an important part of what I was trying to do. The food service goes so hand in hand with what we’re trying to do in fresh food.”

Gourmet Café

As busy as it is, the café is not a big money-maker, says Barnard, “because we’re not willing to compromise our ingredients. There are a couple of things we’re not willing to do in order to make profit because we feel like the service that we’re providing is far more important…”

The Sunshine commitment begins with the ingredients, he says.

“We source as much of our organic ingredients as possible. Even the spices that we use are organic, all of our cooking oils, 90% of our produce. We could get a lot of this produce for half the price that we’re buying it for, if we were willing to go straight conventional. We weren’t willing to do that, and we weren’t willing to raise our prices to the point at which we were making what a normal restaurant margin would be because then all of a sudden we’re chasing off half of our clientele.

“We wanted it to be a place where you just don’t come on your birthday because our dinners are $22, or you come when you have a friend in town. We want it to be a place where the people who live here can come to eat every day and not break the bank. We want it to be comparable to anywhere else you can eat besides really, really expensive fast food. We want to be able to feed people for $9, $10, $11.”

Not willing to compromise on quality and price points “put us into a little bit of a quandary when it comes to profit,” he adds, “because the simple thing would be to just raise the prices.”

But there is a synergy between the café and the store, and, he says, “I make my living in the store. That’s why I’m always willing to just write off a potential loss over there because it’s just one number, just part of a larger, more important number.”

The trend toward eating fresh, organic foods delivered from the farms where they were grown to the dinner table has skyrocketed over the past several years, soaring in popularity across the demographic board.

Former owner Bill Nicholson taught Barnard “about the different varieties that could be grown when you’re not growing for shelf life or distribution life – it’s a whole different animal. And the vitality of the nutrients intact, the enzymes intact, and all these things that are still intact when it’s consumed a day, two or even three days after it’s been picked, just that freshness is amazing, and the taste, and you get the nutritional benefit.

“The reason why people are saying our food (at Shine) is good is because of the core ingredients that we start with; that’s 80% of the battle. Yes, there’s some creativity but the fact that we start with really high quality, really fresh ingredients makes it a lot easier to make it taste good.”

Sunshine is deeply into organic practices and buys produce from three farmer’s markets a week: the Monday afternoon market in Baywood, which is the favorite; Thursday in North Morro Bay; and Saturday morning in San Luis. The store enjoys great relationships with local farmers. Sunshine also receives deliveries twice a week from an organic distributor, Veritable Vegetable, out of San Francisco.

“They don’t carry a single item that’s not certified organic and, to me, you’re not trusting the word of somebody, you’re just getting what you know that it was a certified organic farm and you know exactly what went into that,” says Barnard.

“They felt as strongly as we do about it, for them to go through that process, and it’s been difficult to bridge that gap because we do still feel that it’s just as important to get it fresh and local, maybe even more important than it being certified organic, but it puts us in a quandary where we have to use our best judgment in order to get the highest quality food.”

The high quality of the produce in the store becomes palpable when dining at the café and tasting those same quality ingredients in the cooking. Everything is made from scratch and crackles with vitality. While the fresh quality permeates the café’s entire menu, the flair with which the visually stunning dishes are presented lies closer to the presentation you might find in a fine sushi restaurant than a typical health food café. The taste and quality leave no doubt that you are eating gourmet health food at its life-affirming best, a charge of instant health.

The café’s menu categories are Breakfast (weekends only), Smoothies, Soup & Salad and Entrees. Highlights include Buckwheat Pancakes with any two toppings from bananas, blueberries, walnuts, carob chips or strawberries ($8.50/two pancakes, $4.25/one); Mudslide Smoothie made with bananas, peanut butter, carob, dates and almond milk ($6); Hearty Vegetable or Sweet Potato Tortilla Soup when available ($3 cup/$5 bowl); Tempeh Salad with seasoned tempeh, fresh vegetables, avocado and choice of dressing ($8.50 small/$10.50 large); Black Bean Tostada with seasoned black beans, brown rice, spring mix, fresh veggies, avocado, sesame seeds, on a crispy tortilla, served with salsa and spicy chipotle dressing ($9.50); Tempeh Reuben of seared strips of seasoned tempeh served on sprouted grain bread with cilantro dressing and stoneground mustard – topped with sauerkraut, tomato, lettuce and avocado and served with a side salad ($10); and Vegetable Spring Roll, a rice-paper roll filled with fresh veggies, avocado and seasoned tempeh served with sesame ginger dressing ($4). Customers can try the weekly special, or create their own special dish (starting at $8).

“The most popular items in the café are definitely the spring rolls and the tostada,” he says, “and with the tostada it’s the sauce in combination with the crunchy shell that people like. They still get that kind of feel-good comfort food, but accompanied by that salad. The soups do pretty well, too. Everything does pretty well since we can’t afford to keep it on there if it doesn’t do well.

The 1500-square-foot store offers the same high quality organic produce that energizes the smaller café — as well as an array of nutritional supplements and natural body care products, and a wealth of specialty bulk items like yogurt and carob-covered sweet treats, dried fruit, dates, grains, organic spices, and many hard-to-find healthy alternatives, boxed, bottled and refrigerated, for everyday recipes and dishes.

“In the store, our fresh produce is probably does the highest volume,” he says. “We do a lot of bulk, the bulk food in the back. We have a nice balance because of the fact that we weren’t here in ’73 and there was just a vitamin shop for a lot of years. That’s how it started. It didn’t start transitioning into more of a grocery store until Bill took it over. He had it for about 11 years, and I bought it six years ago, and about 18-19 years ago started bringing more of the food element in. So from the early ‘70s on through the ‘80s it was more of just a vitamin shop, and he was able to establish a pretty good core vitamin-supplement business. We’ve been able to maintain that, and we do sell a fair amount of that.”

A Bright Future

“It’s taken six years to get to this point,” Barnard says. “Finally I feel like our head’s above water and we’ve got the café set. We’re about a freezer or a refrigerator, some new flooring and a couple of light fixtures away from being completely done with the original vision of the whole thing.”

Within the next year Barnard hopes to further integrate new systems “that are allowing us to do more volume and spend more time with customer service, allowing us to spend more time doing the things that we haven’t had the time to do up until now.” Sunshine now has close to 20 “committed” employees.

Barnard had a son a year and a half ago, and hopes those systems will make life easier at the store and allow him to spend more time at home.

“No industry garners this kind of growth without garnering the same attention from competition,” he says. “We’ve been so fortunate to get to the growth that we have in this town, being the size that it is. We don’t yet have a Trader Joe’s, we don’t yet have a Whole Foods. We have that in San Luis and they’re slugging it out there, but we’re the only thing here.

“There’s nothing in Los Osos, there’s nothing in Cambria, so we’ve pulled this whole coastal region. We’re pulling people from Ragged Point because there’s nothing there. So I feel like we’ve got this little niche that we’ve been really fortunate to carve out, and we’ve been able to kind of go under the radar without this competition. That may change in the future…”

Regardless of any future competition, Sunshine won’t be changing its no-compromise formula for success. More and more people are realizing that what you eat has a direct impact on one’s physical and mental state. Basically, everything that we do is dictated by what we eat, and Sunshine is finely tuned into that knowledge.

“I think a lot of people wonder why we went with the vegan café. You have tourists in town that will come in and want to give our food a try because they’re looking for a turkey sandwich or a tuna fish sandwich, and there’s not a whole lot of really strict vegans that work here or live in Morro Bay.”

So why vegan then? Is Sunshine harboring secret hate against meat?

“Meat is not necessarily the evil,” says Barnard, “but we feel like you should eat more vegetables, so if we provide a restaurant with only vegetables then people are going to inadvertently have to eat more vegetables if they eat here. If we get people to get off of their meat and potato diet once a week, twice a week, then we feel like we’ve accomplished that.

“We’re not claiming that everything in here is perfectly great for you, but compared to the option, compared to the standard American diet, compared to the standard American grocery system, we’re just trying to provide a viable alternative to that system, and I feel like we’re accomplishing that. We’re giving people a chance to make better decisions.”

Sunshine Health Foods, 415 Morro Bay Blvd., Morro Bay 93442. Hours: Monday-Sunday, 9 a.m. – 7 p.m., Sunday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Telephone: (805) 772-7873. Shine Café, 427 Morro Bay Blvd. Hours: Breakfast, Saturday, 9 a.m. to noon, Sunday, 10 a.m. to noon; Lunch, Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m., Sunday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Telephone: (805) 771-8344. Website: Facebook:

CAPSLO's Dee Torres Sues Investigator, Others for Defamation

Dee Torres, Director of Homeless Services for the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo (CAPSLO), filed suit on March 21 against Atascadero-based private investigator Michael Brennler and as-yet-unnamed others for defamation.

Torres’ suit claims that in March Brennler “stated in a telephone conversation with [Torres’ former husband] Charles Barber that Plaintiff (Torres) has been stealing money from homeless clients at the homeless shelter and that the Plaintiff has stolen money from a homeless man named Cliff Anderson. These statements are and were false.”

The suit, filed by Torres’ attorney, Roy Ogden of San Luis Obispo, seeks damages exceeding $50,000 as well as punitive damages.

In addition to naming Brennler, a former mayor of Atascadero, the filing leaves open the later inclusion of additional still-unidentified defendants referred to as “Does 1 through 100.” Included in the “Does,” according to the complaint, are “radio broadcasting stations and individuals associated with those stations” as well as “an online news agencies and the individuals associated with those agencies” located in SLO County. Sources confirm that these unnamed radio station and online entities include KVEC and KVEC talk-radio host Dave Congalton, CalCoastNews and its primary owners Karen Velie and Dan Blackburn.

In seeking damages, the suit claims Torres “has been injured in her business (and) suffered injury to her reputation,” and that the defamation was “published by Defendants with malice, oppression and fraud.”

Defendants have 30 days from March 21 to respond to the complaint.

Judge Charles Crandall has ordered the first Case Management Conference for July 24 in SLO County Court.

The ROCK has learned that Brennler, who — we can confirm — was retained by CalCoastNews for his services. In their “Keeping Them Homeless” article series, CalCoastNews declined to mention the former mayor of Atascadero’s involvement with their publication. Private investigators are licensed by the state and registered in the California Department of Consumer Affairs database. Brennler is licensed (#23904) in the state database with the status “CLEAR,” meaning his license is valid. Though he has a valid license, sources close to Brennler were concerned with the ethics surrounding a private investigator being hired by a news site — especially involving a private investigator with a checkered past.

Mike Brennler
Mike Brennler

Brennler, a former San Luis Obispo police officer, also has a contentious past with law enforcement. Sources in local law enforcement mentioned that he was given the nickname “5150,” which is a reference to Section 5150 of the California Welfare and Institutions Code. The section allows an officer or clinician to involuntarily confine a person that is legally deemed to suffer from a mental disorder that makes them a danger to him or herself. The sources explained that Brennler, who exhibited an explosive temper in the office and often verbally assaulted department heads, was disciplined repeatedly by officials after they received several citizen complaints. The specifics of these complaints are sealed.

In a separate legal action, on March 27 Fresno-based attorney Gary Bethel of Littler Mendelson served a letter to several “former employees and possibly others making untrue and defamatory statements about CAPSLO and its employees” demanding retraction or revision of their previous statements. “What happens next,” the letter explains to recipients, “is to some extent up to those who are making these defamatory statements. If the persons making these statements seek to correct their previous erroneous statements, CAPSLO may choose not to seek to enforce its legal rights against them. If this unlawful crusade of defamatory statements and publications continues those involved will be held legally responsible to the full extent of the law.”

CalCoastNews subsequently posted the letter on their website. Velie stated on Congalton’s April 1 show that all the recipients are standing by the statements they made to the publication and told Congalton on April 1 that more people have come forward because of the letter by Bethel.

CalCoastNews Editor/Cal Poly Journalism professor Bill Loving and Publisher Velie appeared on KVEC’s Dave Congalton Show to discuss the lawsuit filed by Torres and the threats of legal action by CAPSLO’s legal representative. Loving defended CalCoastNews only by saying his “curiosity was satisfied” regarding the alleged multiple sources that Velie has accumulated throughout her investigation into homeless services. Loving — who Congalton referred to as an attorney — appeared fixated on the lawsuit’s discovery process. He reminded Congalton that discovery is a pre-trial phase which allows both parties to obtain evidence that is held by the opposing party.

Despite his claim that he graduated with a law degree from Texas, Loving is neither listed in the State Bar of Texas nor the State Bar of California databases. According to his bio on CalCoastNews, Loving graduated with a law degree at Southern Methodist University in 1991. It is illegal to impersonate an attorney if the impersonator does not carry a state bar license.

At one point, Loving told the former contributing editor to CalCoastNews that Torres’ children can be subpoenaed to testify since there were accusations that they used gift cards donated to CAPSLO. Loving also suggested filing a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) lawsuit against CAPSLO and Torres. Loving was referring to a specific part of the RICO laws that help curb alleged abuses of the legal system by parties who utilize the courts as a weapon to retaliate against whistleblowers and victims. Loving did not mention that the parties involved in silencing the opinions of others must be tried and convicted for racketeering (18 U.S.C. § 1961). CalCoastNews has stated unequivocally that CAPSLO has misappropriated funds and Torres stole gift cards, but they have not publicly offered physical evidence other than hearsay and scans of documents from the Social Security Administration explaining the state of homeless man Cliff Anderson‘s account, which did not indicate misappropriation or theft by Torres or CAPSLO.

Velie revealed that there were e-mails, text messages made by people using the same Internet Protocol (IP) address but different names, aggressively communicating to CalCoastNews advertisers that their services and products would no longer be supported if they continued to support the website and their reporting on homeless services. Velie announced that CalCoastNews was going to file a lawsuit to obtain the IP addresses of those who complained to their advertisers. Previously, Velie — who The ROCK investigated for exaggerating and fabricating several articles on CalCoastNews — has claimed that District 3 Supervisor Adam Hill has bullied and threatened advertisers. The ROCK received e-mails from site advertisers, which showed Hill expressing his displeasure with CalCoastNews coverage, but there were no signs of threats and intimidation.