SLO restaurateur rides a wave of business, tourism growth
After partnering to open more than a dozen concepts, San Luis Obispo native Bill Hales has learned a thing or two about the restaurant business.
Hales and a revolving cast of business partners are eating up opportunities to fatten up their portfolio of locations while the market continues to expand.
His most recent endeavor is similar to Rooster Creek Tavern, an establishment he co-owns in Arroyo Grande. The new unit is slated for the revamped University Square shopping center in San Luis Obispo.
Hales is working with developer Nick Tompkins on the development at the long-vacant building that housed Bank of America on Foothill Boulevard.
The concept is described as a wine-centric, family-friendly restaurant that also appeals to young professionals. The 5,000-square-foot location will feature a patio, brick pizza oven, full bar and will have the flexibility to handle large events.
The not-yet-named casual dining concept has an up-market design and will have food, beer and wine offerings in line with Rooster Creek.
Hales is also considering another restaurant for a site on Tank Farm Road and Broad Street near the new Mindbody headquarters. He didn’t give further details on the project as it’s early in the development process.
“That project is still just dirt,” he said. “We’ve got plenty on our plate this year, so we’re not really worried about pushing that one forward too quickly.”
For the University Square project, the space is expected to be ready by late April or in early May. Once it’s done, Hales said he’d like to shoot for an August opening, but September or October is more realistic.
“There are always delays,” he said. “We’ve done enough of these to know that we need to be conservative with our expectations.”
Hales got his start in the bar and restaurant industry 20 years ago mopping floors. Since then his holdings have expanded to include stakes in a dozen restaurants, with 14 total by the end of 2016. He’s also getting ready to open Mason Bar, a small gastropub that will serve farm-to-table dishes alongside a bevy of craft beer on Branch Street in Arroyo Grande.
Bruce Baltin, vice president of CBRE’s hospitality research firm PKF Consulting USA, said the influx of new restaurants shouldn’t come as a surprise since the region has been successful in gathering significant tourism traffic from promotional efforts.
“The area is undergoing a period of upgrading,” he said. “Hotels and motels are upgrading to meet the demands of a greater quantity and quality of guests and that’s being reflected in the restaurant scene. Efforts to market the area have really been taking hold and that’s helped push the local businesses forward.”
An example of that momentum is the expansion of barbecue joint Rib Line to the Villages at Broad Street. The company, featured on Travel Channel show “Man v. Food,” will be taking its popular tri-tip, ribs and chicken to the 2240 Emily St. location. It will be the company’s second restaurant in SLO and third overall; its other location is in Grover Beach. According to those familiar with the project, the new location will feature an open kitchen design, seating for more than 80 and a 10-person bar.
SLO Brewing Co. is also planning to open a larger brewing facility near the airport at 855 Aero Vista Lane. The development includes roughly 19,000 square feet of commercial space. The Business Times previously reported that the popular Ventura-based seafood joint Spencer Mackenzie’s also launched a new location on Higuera Street.
The space between fast-casual and fine dining has experienced the most activity, said Lee Johnson, the city of San Luis Obispo’s economic development manager. In the city’s financial statements for the fourth quarter of 2014, tax revenue from dining establishments shot up more than 10 percent over last year, he said.
The city is building an impressive lineup of new restaurants, many of which are filling up the remaining available spaces. There are a few developments coming online in the long term that will bring some new commercial space, but there could be an upcoming lull in the action, Johnson said.
Two 5,000-square-foot commercial buildings are proposed for a site at Santa Rosa and Monterey streets, and The Junction, a proposed 69-unit apartment complex, includes 3,000 square feet of commercial space — but those projects will take time.
“The big thing is that this kind of activity is important to keeping the quality of life aspect of the city up, where people have options and can get different styles of cuisine at different price points,” Johnson said.
With Cal Poly strengthening its reputation as a research university, a growing student population and the county’s wine industry in full flight, there have been more visitors from the Los Angeles and San Francisco area, and that’s given Hales and his partners more room to experiment with bringing new dining concepts to SLO County.
Hales also co-owns the Shell Beach Brewhouse, Mother’s Tavern, Creeky Tiki, Frog and Peach Pub, The Library Lounge, Bull’s Tavern, McCarthy’s Irish Pub, Wine Shed and two eateries in Mississippi.
Based on the “booming success” at the Shell Beach brew pub, Hales and his partners are looking at Nipomo and Pismo for future concepts, he said.
“For us it’s been a place we’ve always had an interest in and it’s where I’m from,” Hales said of the area’s growing dining scene. “The area isn’t really a secret anymore, which is pretty amazing because it used to just be the vacuous hole where you’d stop to get gas on your way up north.”