Meet Margie Johnson, the woman behind one of the most successful restaurant enterprises in the region.
She has spent more than a quarter-century operating a chain of diners that at one point spanned from Goleta to Monterey. Margie and her late husband, Ken, opened their first Margie’s Diner in Morro Bay in 1986. They wanted to provide simple comfort food made from real ingredients and sourced locally, Johnson said.
“Our produce is fresh, everything is fresh,” Johnson said. “We put fruit on the plate. I want to sell the customer before they’ve even had a bite.”
Johnson earned her restaurant education the hands-on way: Working her way up from dishwasher to cook to server. She and Ken previously operated a coffee shop in Napa Valley, and as they dreamed up their next venture, they sat down over a bottle of red wine one night and hashed out a plan for a low-key diner serving old-fashioned American classics such as burgers, omelets, biscuits and gravy and homemade chili.
From that first location in Morro Bay, Margie’s Diner expanded to San Luis Obispo, to a location next to Highway 101 on the south side of town that still operates today. From there they jumped to Pismo Beach, then Paso Robles and Salinas. In 1998, they expanded with three more locations, opening in Monterey, Atascadero and Goleta. In 2004, Margie’s opened in King City. At its peak, the business had eight diners.
But Johnson said it quickly became too much to handle. Because she personally trained the management and crew for each restaurant, she was spending more time on the road than at home. In 2007, the Johnsons reduced the chain to four diners.
Two years later, as the restaurant business was feeling the full effects of the recession, Ken Johnson unexpectedly passed away, leaving Margie to run her namesake business by herself.
She reined the business in to three locations — in San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles and Salinas.
Business slowed noticeably during the recession and Johnson said ever-rising food costs remain a challenge, especially as she tries to pay a living wage to her managers and employees, many of whom have been with the company for decades.
“I have a guy in SLO that started with me in ‘86 in Morro Bay. His son was just a baby at that time, and now his son works for me too,” she said. “We have a lot of different families here, working with us. They’re the backbone of my business.”
And the company has rebounded in recent years. In 2010, Johnson told the Business Times that Margie’s Diner had 65 employees total, making it the 10th-largest woman-owned business in the Tri-Counties as ranked by the annual survey. This year, she reported that the company has 98 employees.
Johnson said she doesn’t plan to open any more restaurants. The three she has now are keeping her plenty busy, and she’s happy to keep serving up all-American favorites to her existing customers, who range from loyal old-timers and truckers to tourists and college students.
Over the years, the restaurant has received dozens of nods from local newspaper reader surveys and the National Academy of Restaurants as a best pick for breakfast, the best greasy spoon restaurant in the city, the best bang for your buck and best hangover food.
Johnson said she’s managed to hang in there in the rough-and-tumble restaurant business because she’s known as a tough cookie, a “no-bullshit kind of person” who expects her suppliers and business partners to be fair and reasonable with her and to deliver on time.
“It’s been good,” she said, reflecting on the 26-year history of Margie’s. “It could have been better, but it’s been good.”
Sights set on Montecito
The owners of Lucques, A.O.C., Tavern and the Larder at Maple Drive restaurants in Los Angeles are opening a new restaurant in Montecito.
Chef Suzanne Goin and business partner Caroline Styne will open the as-yet unnamed eatery in the Montecito Country Mart at 1014 Coast Village Road. Javier Espinoza and Julie Grimm, both veterans of Lucques and A.O.C., will head up the new restaurant as chef de cuisine and general manager, respectively.
Goin and Styne said they were approached by developer James Rosenfield of J.S. Rosenfield & Co., which owns and manages the prototype Brentwood Country Mart and Marin Country Mart, about the new restaurant.
The restaurant, which will serve brunch, lunch and dinner, is still in the planning stages and the owners said they expect to open in late spring 2013.
In a news release, the duo said they plan to offer a menu that showcases seasonal and local ingredients in simple meals. A wood-burning oven and grill will be used to roast fish, meats, stews, burgers and pizzettes.
The business partners will use designer Jeffrey Alan Marks, who worked on their Brentwood restaurant, to design the space in Montecito, which they said they envision as a farmhouse setting.
Styne will oversee operations, the wine list and a farmer’s market-driven cocktail menu.
• BUN IN THE OVEN: A new bakery is moving in to a historic space in Paso Robles. The Bread Garden Bakery is moving from Berkeley to 1229 Park St. in Paso. The 2,300-square-foot space was originally operated as a bakery run by the Waer family for almost 70 years. The downtown bakery, slated to open in late September, will feature fresh bread, pastries, cookies and desserts.
• BUSINESS IS HOPPING: The owners of the White Rabbit food truck and cafe in Los Angeles apparently did so well, they decided to open a second brick-and-mortar location in nearby Ventura County. Their Fillipino fusion food is now available at 221 W. Fifth Street in downtown Oxnard’s Centennial Plaza. According to a company history, a group of friends originally revved up their food truck businesses with less than $1,000 in capital.
• Contact Marlize van Romburgh at [email protected]