Report: Morro Bay Fishing Industry on the Upswing

Predicting how good the fishing will be in Morro Bay next year—amid shifting markets, changing ocean and ongoing regulatory constraints—is tricky business. However, even if the October report on state of the industry, “Morro Bay Commercial Fisheries 2014 Economic Impact Report,” covering the 2013 calendar year, is a fair-weather snapshot of current trends, Morro Bay fishing is in for some good economic times ahead.

By ED OCHS

Predicting how good the fishing will be in Morro Bay next year—amid shifting markets, changing ocean and ongoing regulatory constraints—is tricky business.

However, even if the October report on state of the industry, “Morro Bay Commercial Fisheries 2014 Economic Impact Report,” covering the 2013 calendar year, is a fair-weather snapshot of current trends, Morro Bay fishing is in for some good economic times ahead.

“In 2013, the commercial fishing industry in Morro Bay continued a powerful trend in increased earnings and landings from a 20-year low in 2007, states the report. “In the last seven years, earnings have increased over 350% and landings have risen more than seven and a half fold.”

“That the earnings are spread across a broad range of fishery types, aimed at differing habitats using different gear, is another indicator of sustainability,” according to the April 2104 companion report, “City of Morro Bay Fishing Community Sustainability Plan.” “Fishermen in Morro Bay target Spot prawn, Pacific hagfish and sablefish with traps, groundfish with hook and line and trawl, squid with purse seine nets, swordfish with drift gillnets, and salmon by surface troll.”

The 2014 editions of the “Economic Impact Report” and “Sustainability Plan” were prepared by San Luis Obispo-based Lisa Wise Consulting Inc., in partnership with the Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Organization (MBCFO) and funded by the Central Coast Joint Cable/Fisheries Liaison Committee.

Morro Bay’s steady climb in fishing earnings was part of a statewide trend, the report notes. Commercial fishing earnings in the state nearly doubled between 2007 and 2013, and, significantly, at the same time, this growth overlapped the recent recession/depression, which bottomed in 2009, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. In other words, Morro Bay fishing suffered the same downtown as did practically every business in the U.S. at that time, and is now in full recovery.

Leading economic indicators place the commercial industry in Morro Bay at near-record highs. Landings by weight—the amount of seafood offloaded at the dock—reached almost 6.8 million pounds in 2013, a 33% increase from 2012, and the highest landings by weight since 1993. Earnings at the dock exceeded $7.1 million in 2013, a 9.3% increase from 2012, marking the third year of dock earnings over $6.5 million, and a 275% increase from the 20-year low in 2007.

According to the report, sablefish, Dungeness crab, hagfish, salmon, Market squid and halibut accounted for approximately 80% of the top-10 earning species in 2013. Shortspine thornyheads, Spot prawn, Petrale sole, Dover sole and Gopher rockfish made up the remaining 20% of the top 10 for a total of $6.25 million.

A top-15 port and statewide leader, Morro Bay led California in 2013 in hagfish with 42% of the state total; Aurora rockfish with 58% of state total; Bank rockfish with 68% of state total; and sablefish with 25% of state total.

Falling Price Per Pound

While earnings increased 9.3% and landings 33% from 2012 to 2013, the “Economic Report” notes, “Price per pound has fallen sharply, reflecting Morro Bay’s increasing participation in the Market squid fishery. Price per pound for Market squid in Morro Bay averaged $0.33 per pound in 2013. Morro Bay’s overall average price per pound in 2013 was $1.05, down from $1.27 in 2012.”

By comparison, species much more valuable than Market squid also hit the docks, though in far less volume. For example, the still-strong sablefish fishery (27% of overall dock earnings in 2013) averaged around $2.50 per pound in 2013. Dungeness crab (17% of earnings) registered its highest total in 24 years, nearly doubling 2012 when it averaged upwards of $5.04 per pound. White seabass averaged an all-time high of $4.62 per pound in 2012 (2013 figures unavailable). Chinook salmon (5%), long a key fishery in Morro Bay, averaged $7.54 per pound last year. In 2013, Nearshore species, including Cabezon, Gopher rockfish, Grass rockfish, Brown rockfish, Black and Yellow rockfish, Kelp greenling and Copper rockfish, fetched about $6.79 per pound. California halibut averaged $6.53 per pound. Spot prawn averaged around $13.31 per proud in 2013, making it the most valuable species to hit the dock.

The “Economic Report” commends fishermen’s “ability to adapt” to shifting markets and seize new and emerging opportunities. “Maintaining the upward momentum,” it states, “commercial fishermen met drops in key fisheries such as sablefish with increased landings and earnings of salmon, Market squid and Dungeness crab.”

Fishermen’s Reaction

“The Morro Bay fishing community is doing very well,” says Jeremiah O’Brien, former president and present director of the MBCFO. “Most of the guys are doing well financially because the fish stocks are there. As we see improvements in the landings, as we see improvements in the opportunities, and we see younger guys coming into the business.

“I’m very optimistic about the future,” O’Brien says. “What’s happening now is that the fish stocks are catching up with management efforts. The management has been very heavy for the last 25 years, and what we’re seeing now, finally, is an upswing in all of the fish stocks right across the board, because some of the efforts were necessary, some were not…”

“I don’t see anything currently that would impede the direction the growth has been traveling,” he says about room for future growth. “It’s steadily moving up the (earnings) chart very nicely. I don’t see anything currently that would impede those numbers. At some point, there more than likely would be a leveling off, and I don’t know when that would come.”

What complicates that picture is the Rock Conservation Area stretching from Canada to Mexico that is currently closed. “That area, between 30 and 150 fathoms, is the primary spawning area for all of the Rockcod on the West Coast,” he says. “It’s been closed since 1999. It’s going to have to open one day soon, and there’s already been rumblings and little tests. In fact, some tests were done here locally. When it does open I believe we’re going to see all of those numbers on the (landings and earnings) charts go up considerably.”

O’Brien feels optimistic about the future of the business.

“The markets look good. I believe we’re going to remain healthy for a long time to come,” he says, especially since the local fishing community has always enjoyed the strong support of the community at large, from the Harbor Department to the city councils. The coming and goings of the fishing boats are an integral part of the rhythm of daily life in Morro Bay.

“We need to ensure (the younger fishermen) are going to make a good living and that there’s opportunity in the future,” O’Brien says. “Management is keeping up with the industry and the stocks are looking healthy… as long as management keeps their eye on things and manages properly. We’ve got to make sure that we have fish for the future while ensuring that we are utilizing the stocks available to us properly now. It’s a fine line.”

Mark Tognazinni, a MBCFO director and business owner, says that while “we have had some great successes, all isn’t a glowing bed of coals in Morro Bay fisheries.”

He questions the largely squid-based economy.

“Let’s do the math,” he says. “6.8 million pounds (in landings), but remember 4 million pounds were squid… All out of town boats, less than five or six boats, mostly ran by non-owners selling to out of town markets, and most all that is consumed ends up leaving the U.S. to be processed. Other than the dock and dock workers who unload the squid there is very little economic gain for Morro Bay. The harbor loves it because it artificially inflates our landings and that keeps tax dollars flowing to the harbor. Squid production does little for Morro Bay other than disrupt other fisheries.

“So, in a year we have no squid landings, and there are more of those than not, do we say the landings have collapsed?”

“Fishermen have it better than we did five years ago,” Tognazinni says, “(but) certain doors are closed behind us as far as limited entry and limited access, (and) lots of active fishermen have manipulated the system and have become owners of very valuable permits for free.

“Morro bay fishermen really don’t need help,” he adds, “but we need to have organizations stop hurting us. Give us reasonable access to resources. Allow fishermen, real fishermen to have access without paying $100,000 of dollars to fish. Get rid of limited entry, individual quotas, and anything else that allows large corporations to own fish that should belong to all of us.”

Key indicators point to a similarly prosperous 2014. Landings and earnings at the dock, species mix and trends, price per pound, number of trips and vessels operating in the harbor; demand for offloading, staging, refrigeration/ice, processing, bait, gear storage, a chandlery and other marine services; as well as for retail space, employment generation, and synergies with tourism and other related businesses—all point to the local industry’s overall good health. Morro Bay is expected to build a boatyard/haul-out facility within the next few years, and that should further stimulate new economic activity at the docks, new taxes revenues, and more dollars spent in town.

And the new faces: “In the last three years [ending in 2012],” states the “Sustainability Plan,” “it is estimated that 12 new participants have entered the commercial fishing industry in Morro Bay, attracted by five years of steady economic growth and increased earnings.” Even more have entered the business in the last two years.

The “Economic Impact Report” “is a tool to give a very small snapshot of a blink of an eye in time,” Tognazinni counsels. “Fisheries are cyclic just like farming and other food producing businesses.

“Ride the highs and prepare for the lows.”

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Marketing Ace Karin Moss Finds Fertile Ground for Success in Morro Bay

Talkin’ Morro Bay, marketing, tourism and the road ahead with former TBID executive director, veteran special events promoter and dealmaker, Karin Moss.

Karin Moss
Karin Moss knows how to laugh.

Karin Moss has lived in California for the past 35 years, but she had never been to Morro Bay before she interviewed and was hired as Executive Director of the Morro Bay Tourism Bureau in late 2012.

Before taking the job and moving to Morro Bay, she had been the National Director of Promotion for Indian Motorcycle in Gilroy when they abruptly went bankrupt. The new owners recruited her to “a little one-horse town” outside of Charlotte. Within a year they sold the company on the verge of bankruptcy, and Moss had to shift gears. Fortunately for her, she’s good at that.

“I became the director of tourism for 10 counties in the Blue Ridge Mountains,” she said, “but I always wanted to come back to California.”

From across the country she was looking at various industry job sites when she saw the Morro Bay listing on the Western Association of Convention & Visitor Bureaus site out of Sacramento.

“I knew where it was located, but until I came for the interview, I was Googling and MapQuesting,” she confessed. “I had never really been to Morro Bay before the initial interview.

“I’ve had a really big, lengthy career,” Moss said. “I thought this would be a great place to be, and that was really the motivation for me. I’ve done the big-city thing, I’ve done L.A., Chicago, New York, San Francisco. My idea of really living well is to do urban business in a rural setting, and that’s really what I was signing up for.”

Opening the new Visitors Center

Moss was hired in November 2012 and relocated to Morro Bay, courtesy of the city. It was an amazing return to California for Moss. It demonstrated her skill and her will. But the reality was she was starting with nothing and had to hit the tarmac running.

“I flew into town and started the job the first week of December 2012, and put together the whole Visitors Center.

“I think they were looking for someone that had experience with start-ups, and I had a lot of experience with start-ups,” she said. “What you would be looking for in a start-up executive director and what you would be looking for in an executive director several years later are two different things,” she said, paving the way for what would follow.

It’s hardly unusual to find out what a new job is really like only after being hired, never before. What Moss didn’t know before she was hired was that she had parachuted into a turf war between the Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau over the Visitors Center, and TBID won. Enter Moss to a chill in the air and a lot of money at stake.

“Some were not wanting to support this new woman from the Blue Ridge,” she laughed, “so it was really great to meet people and get them to roll up their sleeves and help me get that thing open.

She was tasked with having the Visitors Center open by January 2,2013. She had to move everything out of the former Chamber office, furnish the new place, get internet and phones going, hire the people—and she rolled it out by January 2nd. “I think that’s why they needed a seasoned executive director, to get it done, somebody who wouldn’t have to think twice about it,” she said.

Right from the beginning Moss took the marketing in-house, eliminating a countywide ad agency, associated retainers and mark-up charges.

“That was what I was tasked to do, which was market Morro Bay tourism. So I took everything in-house.  It was an excellent decision, absolutely. It was a money-saving decision, and it enabled us to turn on a dime. There were no mark-up charges. I did advertising, promotion, social media, publicity, media relations, public relations.”

Moss left the job in early April, a new executive director has since been hired, and Moss admits feeling some sense of relief stepping away from the high-visibility, labor-intensive position.

At the same time she was leaving, it was announced that Morro Bay tourism was up 33%. More visitors were staying overnight in Morro Bay’s hotels and motels.

“I delivered the end product,” Moss said. “I don’t think anyone would deny that. But I’m a very independent person. I like to work when I want to work, I like to have lots of different clients, I like to volunteer, I like to travel.

“What they needed in the first place to jump-start this organization and what they need now are two different things, so it really has nothing to do with me or where they’re going in the future.

“I was very satisfied with my delivery on that job. I’ve met a lot of people I really like. I’ve developed some collaboration in the community and overcame a lot of the negativity over the separation of the Visitors Center from the Chamber. I worked closely with the Chamber, I was part of their committees, I helped them market events in a very positive way. So it was a good marriage. But I’ve had a big career and I want to continue having a big career.”

The numbers suggest Moss, TBID and the city did something right in 2013, and before. “A lot of people have been planting seeds for a long time, and a lot of money’s been spent,” she said. “It’s not like a non-profit organization where we’re standing on the street handing out fliers. We’ve bought a lot of media, we’ve had some great agencies, some great creative. They had the local promotions committee here. A lot has been done over the last five years, so yes it’s convenient for me that as I’m leaving the numbers are looking good, and I do take some of the credit, but I certainly can’t take all of the credit.”

Moss was still saying “we” almost two weeks after exiting TBID, which is understandable. Marketing Morro Bay was, still is and will continue to be fresh on her mind.

Why Morro Bay?

“There’s so many ways to market Morro Bay. You can’t just look at tourism marketing,” she said. “Everything is everything: you have look at what’s happening with the merchants, how clean is the community, what’s happening with the restaurants. Just because you slept on a $1,500 mattress, if you have a bad breakfast, or there’s garbage on the street, or bad customer service, your entire experience was not a good experience. I like to view marketing globally.

“In my career I’ve been a single woman on the road a lot. I would even go to places that weren’t that great if they treated me well, if I knew they had a clean bathroom, if the grilled cheese sandwich was served by a nice lady.

“In the case of Morro Bay we’re marketing a lot of different demographics, but fortunately we have substantial enough budget that we can reach those people.”

Though Moss isn’t directing the show anymore, she’s still very much in the game.

“I’ll always be promoting Morro Bay,” she said. “We all are, aren’t we?”

One of the last things she did with the Bureau was run a big promotion in the Central Valley where she gave away an all-expense-paid weekend in Morro Bay.

“People went crazy over getting a weekend trip in Morro Bay. I literally spoke to a thousand people; not one single person had a negative thing to say about Morro Bay. Usually you’ve got to listen to the bad dinner, the bad whatever, the horrible sheets, but everybody had a good feeling about it.

“But the call to action, the unique selling proposition: Why Morro Bay… Why not Pismo, why not Cayucos? There’s a lot of different options. But more than anything I’ve learned that it’s not Disneyland, it’s not for everyone.”

Spoiler alert for the jet set:

“If you want five-star dining and room service, this isn’t it,” Moss said. “If you want come to as you are, walk in the door of any restaurant, this is it. No reservations needed. Wear what you slept in. Whatever. That’s the plus of it.”

Moss also believes in truth in advertising, being realistic and thinking holistic.

“Let’s talk about the Morro Bay experience, everything about it: parking, cleanliness, customer service, food, all of it. I listened to someone at a city council meeting the other day and he said, ‘Why do you have all this crap on the street. Are you having a yard sale every weekend?’ And I thought, you know, he’s making a very good point. If you just come here for the first time, is that your initial feeling about the community?

“We need to be aware of all of that. Signs for events after the event that are still hanging on the side of the fence… all of it. We kind of take it for granted.”

Drawing New People

While Moss is happy as a clam she landed by the ocean in Morro Bay, she remains somewhat surprised and perplexed it took so long to find her way. After all, Moss, an avid reader and traveler, has lived in California, both Northern and Southern, for a long time, and yet, she said, “I had never been to Morro Bay, and I didn’t know how to get here, or why should I come here.

“So I’m somebody who doesn’t take anything for granted. Let’s go to square number one: Why do I not know about Morro Bay?

“We haven’t done a good enough job of placing it in people’s mentality as an option. I found a lot of people had a very sentimental journey about Morro Bay. They came here for family reunions, someone in their family got married here. When I did a promotion in the Central Valley, many people said, ‘oh that’s our romantic getaway.’ So they have a good feeling about it, but as far as drawing new people here, does it pass the ‘so what’ test?

“That’s my biggest question: Why here?”

Moss recalled a conversation she had with a couple who came into the Visitors Center on New Year’s Eve. “They said they were here in Morro Bay for the evening, and I said, ‘oh, what made you spend the evening in Morro Bay?’ And they said, ‘because we don’t want to party, we don’t want the nightlife, we want a quiet, pleasant evening.’ Makes perfect sense.”

Moss talks about “the theater of the mind… What imagery is conjured up when you say Morro Bay?”

“I don’t think we’ve made our case well enough,” she said. “While I think the Rock is an interesting backdrop, I don’t think that’s the selling point. People come here, they may take a spin around it, get some fish and chips to go. There’s so much more. If I were king, if I could write those big checks, I’d be marketing Morro Bay as ‘come as you are’. That’s been my experience here.

“There’s some great little merchants here, I’ve had some great dining experiences, but I’ve learned what’s available to me. When you say Santa Cruz people know what they’re going to experience. Monterey, they know. I don’t think they know Cayucos. That was a big surprise to me, but that’s had a lot of press recently in Sunset magazine. It was selected as one of the greatest little beach towns. So now you know it’s going to be inundated.”

Moss believes Morro Bay needs to better answer the simple question, “What’s unique about Morro Bay?” And, to compete, the message has to be compelling enough to draw new people.

“Forget the people that came here in the ’50s and ’60s. If you’re coming here today, what are you going to get? It’s not just the economy. People want more for the money. They want to supersize their vacation. They don’t to make any mistakes. That’s why so many of these reservations are made online; they’re reading TripAdvisor.”

Moss believes that the number of big-draw events in Morro Bay could be improved “radically.”

”For the consumer all the information they need is online. But we need some galvanizing things to get some new people to town. Some of the existing events could be better events, and we should develop some new ones, some unique niche-marketing type of things” Moss said. “That’s where it’s at for us.”

Moss Marketing

Moss has had her own marketing company on and off for years. First it was In Any Event, which was specifically event oriented; then Moss Marketing, which branched out with non-profits, grant writing and fundraising; and now Moss Marketing Group. “Because, through my association with Morro Bay,” she said, “I’ve connected with some really talented freelancers, and those freelancers are now part of my team. So you can hire me or you can hire a social media person, a photographer, a graphics person. I bill myself as one-stop shopping. I’ve been so impressed by the level of expertise that I’ve met here.”

With Morro Bay as her base of operations, Moss is scouting regional clients, and having worked in the Central Valley before, she also hopes to pick up clients there. She is enthused about the people she’s talking to and the projects she’s working on, and convinced she can market clients regionally, statewide, nationally and globally from Morro Bay.

Moss has that inherent ability to take care of business and make things happen wherever she is, and it seems to come naturally to her.

Born in Chicago into an entertainment business family, Moss forged her promotion/marketing chops in the upstart L.A. music business of the ’60s and ’70s when she worked directly with some of the legendary executives, producers and artists that created and shaped classic rock music, such as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Eagles, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne, and industry titans Ahmet Ertegun, David Geffen and Jerry Wexler.

“I got in the business, I was maybe 21 years old,” she explained. “There were only two questions: Is the album on the charts? Did the concert sell out? That’s it. Nothing else mattered. What you wore to the office, what you said to the boss, what your hair looked like; it didn’t matter if you even came in at 9 o’clock in the morning. If you delivered, that was it. I like that.

“Nothing makes me more uncomfortable than sitting around with a group of people after an event that was a bomb and they blew a lot of money and say, ‘but it was great for a feel-good event, it was good for community relations.’ That’s not good enough to me. I like the bottom line.”

Moss’s experience, professionalism, and many successes for an impressive array of clients from rock stars to racetracks, governors to the Dale Earnhardt Foundation have established her as a fearless creative executive who is well versed in the art of the deal.

New Horizons

Moss sees a bright future for Morro Bay. “There’s change on the horizon. I think people see the need for change. It’s people recognizing it and rolling up their sleeves. I’m impressed with things like Morro Bay in Bloom and Morro Bay Beautiful, citizen groups, the Merchants Association, the Tourism Bureau, they’re all trying to do something positive.

“The hardest thing for Morro Bay is everybody is not on the same page. Getting the town on the same page is difficult. If we’re talking about tourism; there are a lot of different types of properties. So the concern of a hotelier in North Morro Bay is not going to be the same thing with the more upscale hotel right in the heart of town.”

Of course, while there will always be different points of view, pulling the town together wouldn’t be such a bad thing, either. It’s a possibility, Moss believes.

“The bottom line is all the same, isn’t it? It’s pretty simple. We want people to come here, we want them to like the town, spend their money; we want them to have a good experience. But we have to recognize that people coming here are not necessarily having a good experience.

“They may have had a good hotel stay, but they may not have had a clean street. They may not have found the merchandise they were seeking. They may not have found the menu they’re seeking. But that’s true everywhere.  It’s not that it’s only in Morro Bay. Every hospitality organization has these same problems. Working more closely with regional entities, where they can combine those dollars and have greater spending will be a good thing.

“I read these articles about the livability of San Luis Obispo, and it is. We have to take the enthusiasm we have for the community and let other people know it in a way that’s believable, that has a brand promise. We’re not the greatest coastal city in the United States. We have our own quirkiness.

“I like the quirkiness of it,” Moss said. “It’s not for everybody, but for those that want this kind of laid-back experience you can’t do any better.”

FishLine Connects Seafood Lovers to the Sea

As soon it was released on the Web on March 25, several hundred people downloaded the FishLine application for their smartphones. That’s a large number, given the fact that people don’t readily associate the fishing community with cutting-edge modern technology, but FishLine marries those two worlds surprisingly well. FishLine’s convenient assortment of features allow people to find fresh, local seafood from Half Moon Bay to Port San Luis in the quickest, most efficient way possible. Phondini Partners, the application’s developers, take it one step further by forming an intricate bond between the user and the fishermen — and that makes FishLine not only a resourceful download, but also an enriching experience.

Fishline’s database of fresh and local fish is updated frequently by local fishermen and seafood retailers. Currently, users are able to browse by species, including — but not limited to — black cod, crab, halibut, lingcod, oysters, rockfish, salmon and sanddabs. Other species are added when vendors are available to sell them. Once the user selects their desired species, a list containing a diverse assortment of fishing vessels, restaurants and fish markets appears. Users can select any of the search results to find the vendor’s address, additional contact information and product availability.

The database is also organized by location (“Ports & Places”). Ports & Places is useful for people who are looking for seafood in a specified area. The gallery offers an assortment of photos from each area, which showcase local seafood restaurants, serene nature photography, photos of food and more. In many respects, FishLine has a built-in appeal to tourism. For instance, other features found in Ports & Places include updated weather and marine forecasts, tide and surf charts, Google Maps, and CHP alerts. Event listings are available on the app’s main menu.

FishLine presents a comprehensive list of local fishermen and their biographies. They offer a surprisingly candid look into the local fishing industry and the people who have dedicated their lives to it. This helps application users get acquainted with people they would be doing business with, lending a measure of integrity and assurance to an otherwise mundane business transaction. FishLine supports the Faces of California Fishing project, which features bios, stories, poetry, recipes and pictures from the fishing community.

Users have access to online, mobile-friendly seafood markets including American Abalone and Morro Bay’s Giovanni’s Fish Market. As of version 2.03j (7/19/2013), FishLine doesn’t have other local online storefronts available. The application would benefit greatly from having a merchant terminal or simple payment gateway such as PayPal, which would keep all transactions within their framework. Additionally, Phondini Partners and participants would have transaction data that could track sales and application usage. Since FishLine is continuously evolving at a rapid pace, their online commerce functionality should improve even more.

FishLine has a very basic, clutter-free interface geared toward people who are new to the era of smartphones. It doesn’t take a lot of time before one has a masterful grasp of the seemingly endless features that help establish a connection between seafood and lovers of the sea. While many smartphone applications tend to have a narrowly tailored focus, FishLine shines as an ambitious exception to the rule while simultaneously introducing the fishing industry to the digital age.

FishLine (Phondini Partners) is financed in part by a grant from the Central California Joint Cable/Fisheries Liaison Committee. FishLine is a community-driven effort, supported by an Advisory Board: Morro Bay Mayor Jamie Irons; Councilman Noah Smulker; Morro Bay Chamber of Commerce CEO Craig Schmidt; Executive Directory of Morro Bay Visitor Center & Tourism Bureau Karin Moss; Morro Bay Harbor Advisory Board Chairman Jeff Eckles; and Fisherman & Restauranteur Mark Tognazzini. 

FishLine is available for download for free at:

FishLine on Apple iTunes App Store

FishLine on Google Play Store

FishLine on Amazon AppStore for Android

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: http://www.sunshinehealthfoods-shinecafe.com. Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/shinecafe.

Banking on ‘The Great Tognazzini’

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Alan Tognazzini

What marketing magician deftly put the ‘Community’ in Founders Community Bank before the bank even opened for business in Morro Bay on July 5 or celebrated its grand opening with a Chamber of Commerce ribbon-cutting ceremony on July 25?

It was Alan Tognazzini, of course. Who else?

When Founders opened on the southeast corner of Morro Boulevard and Main Street, formerly the site of Heritage Oaks Bank, they wanted the closest thing they could get to instant acceptance in the community, and Founders found that in Morro Bay’s “native son,” as their press release dubs him. And it’s true. In a vivid example of history coming full circle, Mr. Tognazzini at one time lived a stone’s throw from where the bank is now, before there was a bank there.

So it makes perfect sense.

If his name rings a bell in the bay fog, it’s because Mr. Tognazzini is well known in the area. His roots run especially deep in Morro Bay. He was born there and schooled at Morro Union Elementary, where his father was the principal. During his decades in banking, he ran a local branch of the San Luis National Bank in the ’70s and was more recently Sr. VP and Branch Manager of Coast National Bank in Los Osos. He’s a former president of the Morro Bay Chamber of Commerce. Beyond that, the Tognazzini family – he has nine siblings — enjoys a long, pioneering history on the Central Coast. They’re synonymous with rise of Morro Bay and the waterfront (his brother Mark runs the landmark restaurant Tognazzini’s Dockside), and they remain a high quality name brand in the business community and throughout the county.

Does Mr. Tognazzini think his longtime involvement in Morro Bay, in addition to his banking experience and presence as Sr. VP/Branch Manager, may provide the new Founders with a slight ‘hometown advantage’ in winning the confidence of local customers?

“For sure, as the kids say,” he smiles.

One edge he has over the competition is his demeanor. Mr. Tognazzini is a banker by profession, but that doesn’t mean he’s a bloodless bean counter who says “No!” if you ask him the time of day. Not in his case. Not at all.

“Bankers have long been perceived as a stodgy old lot. Why can’t we be fun, too?” he pleads. This goes for banking as well. “Why shouldn’t banking be a fun stop in your day? Why should your stop at the bank be a burden rather than something you can look forward to?”

Yes, he’s a banker, not an activities director, but if truth be told he has been known on occasion, and by his own admission, to practice silliness. He is, after all these years, an expert on community. His experience running banks, teaching banking and participating in local government and organizations has taught him that community is created by people getting along, and one of the ways of making that happen is by creating opportunities for people to have fun together, to share a few laughs. He’s done that before and it’s worked; in that spirit he pledges that Founders will be the “funnest” bank in town.

“I don’t mean that we are going to do a Larry, Moe and Curly bit when you come in,” he says. “Instead, we are going to smile and communicate with you, more than just knowing your name. What about that newspaper article about you, or the latest news on your grandchild or your latest trip? What about teasing you about your latest promotion or complimenting you on your new hairstyle?”

Even if you’re bald? Even if your new hairstyle lacks style? It would appear so under Mr. Tognazzini’s rules of congenial engagement. From where does he draw his inspiration for engaging customers in such first-name familiarities? Founders’ latest flyer promoting the new bank evokes more innocent times. Distributed to all Chamber members, as well as to businesses and individuals from Cambria to Los Osos, the copy reads:

“REMEMBER
Hide and Seek at dusk.
Hula Hoops.
Running through the sprinkler.
When War was a card game.
When Water balloons were the ultimate weapon.
The Ed Sullivan Show.
When it was magic when dad would “remove” his thumb.
When Morro Rock was our “Pet Rock”.
Banks were a destination, not a stop along the way.
Your banker came out to the parking lot to see your new car.
You watched the ‘staff’ grow up and go to work for your bank.
Your banker called you when you made a mistake in your check book,
And….
Your banker cared who you were.
Well those times have returned!
For a taste of old fashioned banking the way it was, come and see your friends at…”

In the push-button era of self-service, remote service or none at all, he’s obviously taking customer service very seriously. “Why would anyone want to be a number instead of a person?” he asks, knowing the answer full well.

Mr. Tognazzini was himself toying with being a number in the ranks of the retired when Founders asked him to help set up and launch the Morro Bay branch. He immediately saw the challenge of putting it all together in short order as the pinnacle of his life’s work, the opportunity to pour everything he has learned in community banking back into the community that invested in him.

“Having grown up in Morro Bay, and always having a love for this area, I gladly accepted the challenge to not only open the branch, but to help Morro Bay realize that we are a benefit to the community and will be here for its needs,” he says.

Attracting customers, getting people to transfer and seek loans, especially in this tight economy, may take some work, but Mr. Tognazzini is convinced that success will come “when the community has fully accepted us as a beneficial part of it.”

That acceptance shouldn’t take long. If he can’t do it, no one can. He knows the people, he knows the town, he knows the secret of community, and he’s building on solid rock for the future at the corner of Moro and Main. That’s why Founders’ greatest asset in Morro Bay is the Great Tognazzini.

You can bank on it.

The Green Pioneer of Los Osos Expands His Reach

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Entrepreneur Anthony Morrocco proudly calls his home “Castle Antonio.” The castle, located in Cabrillo Estates, overlooks Los Osos and the rest of the Estero Bay. Bright, vibrant skies illuminate a panoramic view of the serene bay from his driveway. At first glance, one wouldn’t have to wonder why Morrocco wants to protect the environment.

“Every day, I wake up in the morning and think, ‘Wow!’ Even I can’t believe I’m here!'” he exuberantly told The ROCK recently. The notion that businesses would even entertain the idea of not recycling — and help protect the environment that he’s dedicated his life to preserving — is offensive to Morrocco. He sees businesses that don’t recycle and incorporate environmentally friendly business practices as a clear and present threat to the world he wakes up to every morning.

Morrocco Method International is one of the most internationally recognized and reputable brands of natural, wild-crafted and vegan haircare products. It is a business that prides itself on an environmentally friendly business model that’s nothing short of extraordinary. One way it’s “going green” is their policy on box-recycling — but that policy provides only a small glimpse into the Los Osos-based company that has unprecedented loyalty to the environment.

“It’s horrendous,” said Morrocco Method’s charismatic CEO and Founder Anthony Morrocco, when The ROCK asked him about how many businesses throw away their packaging materials. “It’s easy to recycle. It really is, but people are lazy,” he told us. “Keyword, here, is ‘lazy’.

“We live in this opulent society, and people don’t recognize the value of things. They’ll just throw them away, think nothing of it. It’s horrendous,” said the former celebrity hairstylist as he held up a piece of Styrofoam. In his company’s “Green Environmental Statement,” Morrocco called Styrofoam a “man-made wonder invented with no forethought or knowledge as to detrimental effect.” Styrofoam, which is commonly used non-biodegradable protective packaging material, is often credited as a major contributor to the breakdown of Earth’s ozone layer.

“Recycling is not merely something you ‘want’ to do,” Morrocco said sternly during a tour of his shipping room in his house. “It’s a must! Here, we want to recycle and we know it must be done.”

Two assistants — among Morrocco’s 15 full-time and part-time employees — all recruited from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo — buzzed around us as they assembled and packaged Morrocco Method products in the shipping room. Instead of conducting day-to-day operations from warehouses and regional distribution centers, everything from manufacturing to shipping is done in his 7,500 square-foot home.

In the shipping room, employees take discarded packaging from five dozen local businesses — including Office Max, PETCO and Barnes & Noble — and distribute their products using other businesses’ boxes and packaging material. Products are then shipped to participating companies and retailers across the country and all over the world. By removing the step of discarding perfectly reusable materials and sending them to landfills, Morrocco Method keeps materials in the shipment chain. Local businesses are encouraged to participate in the company’s green initiative.

But Morrocco Method’s appreciation for the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” adage doesn’t stop there.

Marketing Coordinator Ellen Jones explained that the company reuses print paper as scratch paper. “Our employees will go through our paper stock to see if there’s a blank side. If there is a blank side, we’ll use it,” said Jones, a Cal Poly senior. Like everything else, the paper is recycled. Everything but the office computers, which were the lone exception to using recycled goods. “As we found out, the computers aren’t as easy [to recycle],” Morrocco added. It was one concession he was willing to make based on experience. On the other hand, since he started Morrocco Method more than a decade ago, the business has expanded its digital presence, serving customers worldwide with what they call “personalized, face-time customer service.”

Within his castle walls, Morrocco successfully combines modern-era business models with old-school European economic efficiency and sensibility. Morrocco stuns people who visit the castle by showing them that all of his furniture and accessories were purchased at garage sales and estate sales, though it’s nearly impossible for the untrained eye to discern. “People go to garage sales because they see value. There’s no shame in that,” he said, chuckling whimsically. “I encourage more people to do it. What you find at those sales is incredible!”

“I bet you like the idea that not a lot of people in SLO County understand the true value of what’s found at garage sales,” The ROCK said to him. “You have access to all these good deals.”

The astute businessman grinned. “Of course, of course!”

Morrocco is no Johnny-come-lately to conservation. He is an upbeat but hard-nosed entrepreneur who was taught by his Italian grandparents to appreciate the art of saving and reusing everything. Taking what little his grandparents had after World War I and cherishing the value in things that they instilled in him, he began to turn his family values into a business. In his twenties, excited by a friend who told him that “the gold was in the gutter,” Morrocco learned to take pieces of good furniture discarded on the streets of New York, refurbish and resell them for a profit.

“I had absolutely no idea what he meant by gold in the gutter, and I had no idea how much that would impact me later in life,” said Morrocco.

He attends garage and estate sales regularly, and has done so since 1979, buying anything he finds useful. Surveying the furniture in one of his offices, he knew how much each item cost at retail and how much he purchased the item for refurbished. One desk he showed us cost $2,000, but he bought it refurbished for $200. Filing cabinets cost only a fraction of what it would cost had he purchased the item new. He even purchased his luxury sports car, a Jaguar XKR — average retail price of $103,500 — for less than half its worth.

“I bought that on Craigslist,” said Morrocco.

“Craigslist?” I asked in disbelief, thinking he was joking.

“Yes, Craigslist.”

Evidently, his caution and wary navigation through Craigslist has rewarded him extensively. He’s also used Craigslist to purchase his company trucks.

No tour of his castle could be complete without a visit to “The Dungeon.” The Dungeon turned out to be a surprisingly large, windowless attic with narrow, sloped passageways surrounded with seemingly endless cartons of useful supplies and product ingredients. The ingredients, such as henna — a flowering plant used as natural hair dye, which the company imported directly from India — are taken to a downstairs production room to be mixed into the Morrocco formula. Nimbly ducking under pipes and low ceilings revealed other storage areas of the attic stacked with boxes all organized and labeled. According to Morrocco, each box stored in “The Dungeon” is reused — and the bottles, caps, and ingredients inside of them are reusable.

“Isn’t this place neat?” said Morrocco with boyish elation. “Nothing is thrown away.”

“What would your grandparents think of what you’re doing now?” he was asked.

Morrocco paused briefly, looked up and sighed pleasantly. “Their spirits are looking down at me and thinking, ‘He’s doing well,'” he answered with a confident chuckle.

Morrocco Method International’s product line specializes in natural haircare. His carcinogen-free products focus on scalp rejuvenation and reconstruction. From the products he sells to the life he lives to the ways he conducts his business, literally everything that comes in contact with Anthony Morrocco — nicknamed by some as “The Green Pioneer” — is given a second chance. That’s his nature, his commitment and passion.

The company’s loyalty to the environment has allowed the business to pursue emerging technologies, techniques and product formulas in ways that were previously unimaginable. The problem, says Morrocco, is that businesses are not aggressively pursuing green initiatives. “I want to be the example of making ‘green’ happen,” he said. “We need community participation.” San Luis Obispo County is actively making strides when it comes to green initiatives, but “more definitely needs to be done,” Morrocco told The ROCK.

“And we’ll get it done.”

Morrocco Method International, 2743 Rodman Drive, Los Osos, CA 93402. Tel: (805) 534-1600. Website: http://www.morroccomethod.com. Email social@mmhair.net. Email with the subject “GREEN BOX PROGRAM” if you’re interested in participating in their box-recycling initiative.

The Twin Worlds of Wonder at Captain Nemo/Cheap Thrills

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With only days away from Free Comic Book Day on May 5, co-owner Raymond Hanson of Captain Nemo Comics and Games is ready. He’s familiar with the beehive of activity the annual event generates. This year might see a spike.

Mr. Hanson’s love of comic books goes back to his childhood days when he would rent out comic books for a nickel every page — and he would spend the dimes he earned to buy comic books for himself. Now, he meticulously combs through seemingly countless aisles of comic books, making sure that the latest issue of each comic he supplies is front and center. When you browse through the comics, you have to smile. Several preceding issues of each comic book are conveniently placed behind the latest. Some are already packaged in clean comic bags and backing boards. This is the essence of Captain Nemo. There’s always more — and the more you find, the more rewarding the shopping experience.

Free Comic Day is on May 5

Standing between hundreds of comic books in one aisle and new/used DVDs in the other, a young man in his mid-20s slowly wandered down the wide aisles of Marvel and DC Comics. He carried at least a dozen comic books. After staring at a row of action figures above the comics, he set the books down briefly to read the latest issue of Avengers v. X-Men, a limited series comic book crossover that was released this month. The timing of the crossover series’ release was right on the beat of the street. The Avengers movie is due out May 4 — and on May 5 at 10 a.m., Captain Nemo will be celebrating Free Comic Book Day, an event celebrated by thousands of comic book stores worldwide.

“Over the years, Free Comic Book Day has been our way to show appreciation to our loyal customers and help new customers find interest in the wonderful art of comics. To coincide with Avengers: The Movie, we are giving away not one or two, but five FREE comics to all customers who visit our store,” says Mr. Hanson.

The upcoming event will mark their eleventh Free Comic Book Day. First held in 2002, the event is organized by a panel of members from the comic book industry, including retailers, publishers, suppliers and Diamond Comic Distributors. The event is meant to get people interested in reading comic books. Hailed as an original American art form, comic books provide colorful illustrations backed by comprehensive storylines. Within the past decade, comic books have revolutionized the movie industry with films like The Dark Knight (which grossed over $1 billion in revenue worldwide) and the Spider-Man trilogy. With Free Comic Book Day, attendees can buy and read the comics before they hit the big screen.

Captain Nemo will be handing out titles such as Avengers: Age of UltronStar Wars Serenity and Spider Man Season One. Kids will enjoy titles like Mega ManTransformersSmurfs and Yo Gabba Gabba!

“People love coming to Free Comic Book Day. We get hundreds of customers coming in. It gets busy in here, but we love it,” Mr. Hanson told The ROCK. “Then people start to explore everything else!”

How could they not? Captain Nemo — formerly a muffler shop — is stocked with the latest and greatest comic books, graphic novels, board games, trading cards, action figures, videos and DVDs. When they’re not packed with customers, Captain Nemo becomes a serene getaway where one could get lost in an endless sea of interactivity. As comic book and geek aficionados, the friendly, well-informed staff encourage random discovery. There is plenty of ground to cover. Captain Nemo makes it a relaxing experience for customers to freely browse the 3,000 square-foot space. Exploring the various rooms can convert shoppers to seasoned navigators like the original Captain Nemo himself as they sail through wide-open aisles of endless entertainment interrupted only by their own discovery of something else too compelling not to stop and grok.

To reach Nemo’s, you enter through the front doors of Cheap Thrills Records. Recently, Cheap Thrills celebrated Record Store Day, which took place on April 21. Many independently-owned record stores participate in this annual event. Each participating store releases event-exclusive special vinyl records and CDs and showcase special appearances. The event is meant to promote the brick-and-mortar music retailers, which event organizers say are integral to the global retail community. By introducing people to new music and artists, Record Store Day helps customers connect with independently-run retailers on a whole new level. Sure enough, Cheap Thrills keeps that spirit alive on a daily basis.

Typically, a 1970s or ’80s hard-rockin’, vinyl-quality jam is playing through store speakers. Founded in 1971, Cheap Thrills makes it plainly clear that old is new again — and age has only intensified the subtle sensations in yesterday’s grooves.

The majority of the store is dedicated to new and used music in multiple formats: CDs, cassettes, DVDs, EPs, singles, 7-inch records, 8-track and vinyl. Each of these formats is evenly distributed among multiple music genres. Their collection of vinyl is most impressive. Cheap Thrills owner Richard Ferris told The ROCK that he grades each vinyl record that passes through his store and wholesale website, Square Deal Online (www.SDRS.biz).

“We make sure that the quality is there,” Mr. Ferris told me. “The snap. The crackle. The high fidelity. All of it.” For a business owner to have a loft fully dedicated to vinyl indicate how passionate he is about the mostly phased-out fomat. With the rise of popularity in digital music, he makes a strong argument for vinyl superiority, even over digital. He talked about enjoying the nuances of different instruments as it was easy to tell them apart with vinyl-quality sound, unlike digital.

In today’s digital-everything world it’s surprising and refreshing to see how deeply Mr. Ferris and his employees care about music’s audio quality and physicality. “That’s where the music is,” said Mr. Ferris. He turned the conversation into a battle-hardened, philosophical musing about the state of the music industry. We talked about legendary artist Neil Young, who has repeatedly argued that the digital format should “burn out and fade away.” Echoing Young’s sentiments, Mr. Ferris complained that the emergence of digital format has forced consumers to choose between quality and convenience. Yet at Cheap Thrill’s, vinyl is conveniently in abundance, and the quality is guaranteed. Young would be proud.

Consistent with the “everything old is new” mantra, Cheap Thrills has a wide selection of retro video games — going as far back as the Atari 2600, ColecoVision and the original Nintendo — that seamlessly blend in with used and new titles from next-generation consoles such as the Nintendo Wii, Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. The walls are covered in new/used games, systems and accessories at competitive prices. At first glance, there is a strong impulse to take a title off the shelf and passionately beg your parents if you can have it — even if you’re an adult, because that feeling will never leave you. No Best Buy superstore could faithfully replicate that feeling as strongly as Cheap Thrills. There’s no reason to visit Best Buy and buy games that you could get at Cheap Thrills: these guys will match the price. Some of the retro games are even in their original packaging, still waiting for the seal to be broken and the game to start.

Customers can buy, sell or trade records and videos. On the Captain Nemo website, they offer thousands of comic books and video games for sale online. The site is part of a family owned and operated business, Square Deal Recordings & Supplies, that was established in 1972. Square Deal Recordings & Supplies boasts over 9,000 different vinyl titles, 20,000 CD titles, and a wide array of pop culture merchandise. For people who like to shop online, the website is a lo-fi treat that is easily accessible and plentiful. Record collectors, comic book fanatics and hobby enthusiasts can benefit from the deep inventory. Customers looking for a good buy will undoubtedly be impressed with a selection that seems to go on for infinity — and that’s just their online storefront.

Situated in downtown San Luis Obispo, Captain Nemo Comics and Games/Cheap Thrills constantly instills the belief that it is perfectly fine to be a geek of any variety, any age. So walk or drive down, park in their generous off-street parking lot, and stroll into one of the most innovative small businesses in the County. Walk inside and you’ll see two different worlds with a similar business philosophy: the customer always comes first. No matter what. No empty walls. No dead ends. Everywhere in the maze leads to somewhere rich in pop culture collectibles with titles that come alive when you hold them in your hand. History and the passage of time has only proven that Captain Nemo’s commitment to the value of entertainment memorabilia has made them a cultural mecca across the Central Coast.

Free Comic Book Day will be an event that reminds everyone — from the casual consumer to the hardcore fan — about the everyday deals and, indeed, the cheap thrills of exploring the seas with Captain Nemo. There is nothing better than walking into a store and feeling like you’re on a relentlessly euphoric, lifelong journey that began in childhood and has yet to find childhood’s end.

— Aaron Ochs

Captain Nemo Comics and Games/Cheap Thrills, 563 Higuera Street, San Luis Obispo, California. Hours: Mon-Sat. 10 a.m. – 9 p.m. and Sun. 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. Tel: (805) 544-6366. Website: http://www.captainnemo.biz/Nemo/ or http://www.sdrs.biz

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What’s So New About New Frontiers Market?

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When New Frontiers abandoned its cramped but friendly store on E. Foothill Blvd. near downtown San Luis Obispo and opened its spacious new megamarket in November 2010 in Irish Hills Plaza with roughly 32,000 square feet, it seemed a fair question to ask if such a concept could survive in the same bare, big-box neighborhood as Home Depot, Costco and Target.

What New Frontiers has done with the vast expanse to serve their high-end, health-conscious customers explains why the sophisticated hybrid market has rapidly become the best in the County. They keep replenishing the “new” in New Frontiers every day, relentlessly, purposefully adding fresh facets to the store’s already formidable array of health-driven foods, products and services.

“We now offer a really extensive food services department,” says Ron Colone, Marketing Director for New Frontiers Natural Marketplace, headquartered in Solvang, “which includes a hot bar that features a variety of entrees and side dishes that change from breakfast to lunch and dinner, a salad bar, made-to-order Asian wok bowls, pizza, panini and sandwiches, in addition to sushi, soups and salads, hot and cold entrees, a bakery, fresh juice and coffee bar and a gelato counter.”

New in the 18-month-old store is an artisan cheese shop, an expanded fresh meat and seafood department — which includes dry-aged beef — a floral department, a large deli seating area with free WiFi, and a conference room available for meetings and other uses by community groups.

So shoppers can eat in the store in a dining area with seats, tables and a microwave, or outside on the sidewalk patio with their dogs. New Frontiers’ “menu” is as extensive as any gourmet deli and restaurant in town, and, says Mr. Colone, “as it says on the wall in our deli: ‘We artfully prepare fresh food in our kitchen daily.’

“All that incredible food that you see in the deli case and in the bakery is made right there in our kitchen. And yes, freshness is very important to us, as is flavor. The fresher the food the more nutritious it is — to body and soul, and flavor is what makes it exciting. What good is having natural food if it doesn’t taste good?”

To make sure customers know the food they buy there is always fresh and healthy, New Frontiers not only grows their own produce, they also play a major role as a hub for other specialized growers.

“We own and operate our own organic farm (just south of Buellton), and help support other small, independent, family farmers, to supply fresh fruits and vegetables to our stores and others as well. … We’ve made a commitment to buying local – not only from local farmers, but we carry a lot of local products all throughout the store, and we work together with those local vendors to promote their products.”

New Frontiers is also a pioneer on the green frontier both in the fields and in the store, Mr. Colone explains.

“During the past year, we began a large-scale composting operation on the farm using food scraps from our San Luis Obispo store and vegetable trimmings and green matter from the fields, along with horse manure to create a biologically rich and safe product that builds up the farm soil.

“We strive to be good stewards of the earth, and towards that end we’ve incorporated many green measures into the design and construction of our store, including solar energy panels on the roof, decorations, bins and display units made from repurposed wood, high-tech energy-saving refrigeration systems, waterless toilet, and much more. We also eliminated plastic grocery bags entirely a year ago.”

Emphasizing their commitment to organic products, New Frontiers actively “avoids” genetically modified foods as it pursues a dedicated green course.

“Starting last summer, New Frontiers initiated a policy change that saw us taking a much firmer active stance to avoid genetically modified organisms,” Mr. Colone says. “It began with changes in our deli, when a decision was made that all fresh produce at the salad bar and the juice bar had to be 100% certified organic. The deli also replaced the most common foods containing GMOs with non-GMO or organic alternatives, including:  soy, corn, canola, rice, zucchini and yellow squash. All the tofu and tempeh and Veganaise and tamari used in the deli are organic, and there are a minimum of two organic dressings at the salad bar at all times.

“We partner with the Non-GMO Project to celebrate consumers’ right to choose food and products that do not contain GMOs, and have been a leader in the industry in working to ensure viable non-GMO alternatives into the future. In each of the last two years, we donated several thousand dollars to support the work of the Non-GMO Project, including creating a standardized definition of non-GMO and a third-party verification program, and we have supported the effort to put mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods on the ballot in California this coming October.

“We’re also taking steps in our meat and seafood department to become more sustainable and to urge our suppliers to produce or source cleaner products and to utilize more sustainable methods,” he says. “We recently added a new line of pork which has ‘never ever’ been administered hormones or antibiotics. During the year, also, Greenpeace placed New Frontiers at the top of the Seafood Sustainability rankings as the most ‘green’ retailer of seafood in the state.

“We try to provide the highest quality food and products,” Mr. Colone tells The ROCK, “and in that way contribute to quality of life… and we embrace opportunities to improve the quality of life and make a difference in the community.”

For example, New Frontiers donates 5% of sales on the third Wednesday of each month to local non-profits. They support community programs, causes and organizations with contributions, gift baskets and raffle items. They offer a 10% off senior discount on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and they have a 100% guarantee return policy “to encourage people to try new things,” he adds.

Here are a few new things we tried and enjoyed on a recent visit to New Frontiers: a medium-size container of creamy bread pudding on sale ($3; $3.75 regular), a small container of baba ghanoush ($2.80; $6.99/lb.), and gelato ($2 for a small cup) made by Leo Leo of Paso Robles. The prepared half-pound containers of gourmet deli salads, dips and desserts are an affordable way to sample a wide variety of offerings.

Frontiers Finale: Available that day at the endless salad bar ($8.99/lb.), among a cornucopia of other specialty items, were: spicy yams, Hawaiian tempeh, chipotle potato salad, “Viva Italia” quinoa, collard green slaw, Moroccan toasted millet, caramel apple bread pudding, apple raspberry fruit crisp. Available at the deli: Ying Yang Salad ($8.99/lb.), Goat Cheese Tart ($5.99 each), New Wave Waldorf Salad ($9.99/lb.); Wild Blackened Salmon ($19.99/lb.), Curried Chicken & Grape Salad ($12.99), Artichoke Speltberry Salad ($8.99/lb.), Sausage Feta Hand Pie ($12.99). From the bakery: cannolis ($3.99 each). From the sushi kitchen: Chef Sampler ($11.99), Shoreline Combo ($9.79), Hawaiian Roll ($9.29). From the premium select meat & seafood markets: Vintage Natural Tri Tip Steak or Roasts ($6.99 lb. on sale), Wild Caught Albacore Tuna Steak ($13.99 lb. on sale), New York Steak ($24.99 lb.), Jumbo Scallops ($23.99 lb.). These items represent only a drop in the ocean of delights found almost everywhere in the store.

For coastal dwellers who may not have frequented the old, much smaller downtown location (opened in 1997), or have driven by the “new” New Frontiers but haven’t stopped to shop there yet, you’re overdue to inject some health and flavor into your diet. You will dazzled by the depth and breadth of high quality fresh, healthy, tasty food products you can’t find anywhere else in one place, which is the whole idea of New Frontiers. It’s not for the faint of wallet, though. Unless price is no consideration, the key is to shop carefully and ask for taste samples when possible. The store basically has its own entrance on Froom Ranch Way off Los Osos Valley Rd. – it’s the first right after passing the main entrance to the shopping center on Froom Ranch, and it comes up quickly!

—Ed Ochs

New Frontiers Natural Marketplace, 1531 Froom Ranch Way (Los Osos Valley Rd. near Home Depot), San Luis Obispo, California 93405. Hours: Monday-Sunday, 8 a.m. – 9 p.m. Tel: (805) 785-0194. Website: http://www.NewFrontiersMarket.com

The Beating Musical Heart of Coalesce Bookstore

Approaching its 40th anniversary in July 2013, Coalesce Bookstore in Morro Bay has taken on the rich, burnished glow of a community landmark refusing to age gracefully.

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Approaching its 40th anniversary in July 2013, Coalesce Bookstore in Morro Bay has taken on the rich, burnished glow of a community landmark refusing to age gracefully. In fact, Coalesce keeps evolving, and shows no signs of retreating from progressive edge on which it was founded in 1973.

Over the years, thoughtfully chosen, hard-to-find books, old and new, have been joined by well-known musicians, old and new, and a flowering contingent of local authors and poets, as Coalesce has grown into one of the most important artist venues in San Luis Obispo County.

Quiet on the outside, reserved on the inside, Coalesce has a musical heart that beats for time-tested talent. Continuing its tradition of presenting excellence in the arts – literary, musical and spiritual – Coalesce presents classic folk artist Eric Andersen on Friday, April 20, at 7 p.m., for one night turning Coalesce’s Garden Chapel into a Greenwich Village café, rekindling the thriving folk scene of the ‘60s and ’70s.

Coalesce co-founder Linna Thomas credits San Luis Obispo Folk Society for the flow of top talent through the Chapel, as well the thriving West Coast tour circuit that attracts quality musicians from around the country to play clubs up and down the coast from San Diego to Seattle.

“Most of them are touring from LA and San Francisco, particularly, and from the Nashville music scene,” Linna says. “They’re all in California doing a West Coast tour, and they love to stop on the coast.”

It makes perfect sense. Perfect weather, perfect audiences. What performer today wouldn’t want to work the California coastline?! To bring home the point, legends play Coalesce. Gordon Bok (“If the sea had a voice it would sound like Gordon Bok,” says Linna), country-rock pioneer Chris Hillman of The Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, and folk/blues master Geoff Muldaur are among the all-time greats that have played Coalesce and who, like the herons and egrets, continue to travel great distances to find sanctuary by the sea in Morro Bay.

Appreciative, music-savvy audiences fill the scenic 60-seat Garden Chapel behind the store, and become part of the kind of intimate performance only found in the best small clubs from New York to San Francisco. The store is ringed with posters of some of the artists that have played Coalesce through the years, and the variety and quality of the musical talent is astounding. Even when it’s empty for yoga and meditation, the textured, hand-crafted Chapel walls resonate with the harmonious sounds and strains of folk, country, Celtic, roots, blues and jazz – classic and modern – left behind in the ethers after more than 30 years of timeless music.

Interestingly, local authors and poets receive the same warm Chapel welcome as the trailblazing minstrels, pickers and troubadours. The impact of a personal appearance by an author or poet can be just as mesmerizing and emotional for book lovers as music is for music lovers – especially for those, says Linna, who “know how to work a room.” San Jose-based Julie Riera Matsushima’s recent event for her memoir, For the Love of Aimee, was just such a moving experience. Book signings and poetry readings flourish at Coalesce. “We really want to support our local authors and musicians. We welcome any events like that,” says Linna.

For writers, the journey from idea to finished book leads to the most prominent shelf space in the store, identified by the vertical strip: LOCAL AUTHORS. Erik Paul Rocklin’s The Tapestry of Spirit, Gordon Snyder’s Venice Lost, editor/contributor Sue McGinty’s Somewhere in Crime, and legendary teacher/maestro/artist Botso Korisheli’s Memories of a Teaching Life in Music – glisten in the finely filtered light of the soulful store. Tucked tightly in these nurturing shelves are intriguing titles by many locally known writers, all published with a polish and professionalism that should inspire the future writers and poets of the coast.

At the same time, in this era of the online bookseller, it’s easy to overlook what a great bookstore Coalesce really is, and the indispensible personal services it’s been providing to a large book-fed community for many years. That hasn’t diminished; it’s only gotten better. New books, used books, discounted books, hard-to-find books, out-of-print books, local books, buy-and-trade books, and a satisfying range of books on a wide variety of topics and subjects – all tailored to the needs of the community – all found under one roof. Local readers who think they are saving money by shopping online might be stunned to discover that Coalesce’s discounts on new books often beat the big guys. Plus, factoring in the savings on gas, postage and time, it means cracking open “Chapter 1” on that new book even faster.

There’s always something going on at Coalesce. Says Linna, “It would sort of be a shame not to, don’t you think? It’s a sweet space. Private. Serene. It’s got a furnace if it’s cold…” All together, the Bookstore, “Secret Garden” as Linna calls it, and Garden Chapel is a quiet, thinking, reflective place, yet the array of activities at the Coalesce complex is surprising – musical performances, book signings, lectures, presentations, yoga, meditation and healing classes, discussion groups, tasteful social gatherings, memorials and weddings in the Garden Chapel.

“There’s a lot of love in our Chapel,” says Linna, who has conducted thousands of wedding there and has now turned those duties over to associate Sherri Herford. Apparently, having met people only once is enough to be remembered forever, especially if you married them — and thousands of others. “People come in all the time, and they’ll come up to me and go, ‘Hi,’ and I go, ‘Hi,’ and I know what’s happening because they’ll say, ‘We were married here 17 years ago.’ And, of course, we’re all so different now…”

Now the winds of change are blowing through the Dutch doors of Coalesce Bookstore, and while time has stolen dear friends and family it has also delivered many unexpected, irreplaceable treasures. Linna knows Coalesce is in good hands with Sherri and loyal, longtime assistant Joanne Hand and her son Jordan. There is a continuum afoot. Every day, every week, every month, books are bought and sold, songs sung, books signed, poets heard, couples married, and all the while the garden of tender memories flourishes at Coalesce.

Linna and partner Janet Brown started Coalesce in 1973 in a different location nearby and moved to Main Street in ’81. “We used to be in a wonderful old Morro Bay cottage. We had big gardens, and I used to grow an acre of sweet peas and give them away by the armloads. So when we moved from there I was looking for a garden place. We got lucky.”

Morro Bay got lucky, too, and so did an inland ocean of musicians, writers and poets.

There is a timelessness about Coalesce that transcends the changing landscape because it’s a still a work in constant progress, reflecting the growth of music and literature on the creatively upstart Central Coast, to which there appears no end in sight. That’s why Coalesce has such a bright future. Its roots run deep in the community, and books, and thanks to the iPad, Kindle and self-publishing, are taking off all over again.

So if you’re walking down Main Street near Coalesce, stop and savor the realization that this quaint storefront is actually the gateway to the musical and literary arts in Morro Bay. You can’t see from the street what’s going on behind the store, in the lush gardens and Garden Chapel. You can’t tell from the front door what’s going on inside, and you can’t tell a book by its cover; nor the passion of its author for his or her subject; nor the passion of the owner of the store for choosing that author’s book to buy and sell, and keep the business growing.

The story of how Linna Thomas and Janet Brown followed their hearts and turned Coalesce from a bookstore by the sea into an entertainment center under the protective embrace of Morro Rock is one of the great business and culture stories in local history. As it’s turning out after almost 40 years, it is a story worth celebrating as much as any story in any book gracing the shelves or any song filling the air in the Garden Chapel.

Because when you enter Coalesce Bookstore you are walking into a page of living history.

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Coalesce Bookstore, 845 Main Street, Morro Bay, California 93442. Hours: Monday –  Saturday, 10 a.m. – 5:30 p.m., Sunday, 11 a.m – 4 p.m. Telephone: (805) 772-2880. Email: coalescebookstore@gmail.com. Website: http://www.coalescebookstore.com/