Rolling On

Daniel Medina has worked at the Wagon Wheel in Carmel Valley for seven years. Now he’s the owner of the beloved breakfast-all-day spot.

Although the history of Carmel Valley dates back for centuries, a little digging will tell you that “the valley” community as we know it today began to take shape during the 1930s. Around that time, Del Monte Properties, owned by the legendary S.F.B. Morse, secured valuable water rights along the banks of the Carmel River. As the company gradually sold off pieces of the desirable and now developable land along the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains, more business and opportunities began to spring up in the valley.

By the 1960s, places like Quail Lodge and Garland Ranch Regional Park began to occupy space along Carmel Valley Road, bringing more and more traffic to the tranquil rural community. As the number of visitors continued to rise, so too did the need for roadside watering holes and eateries. Among the first of those early establishments was a little-known picnic spot just off the road known as the Wagon Wheel.

As the years rolled by, the Wagon Wheel evolved from little more than a mid-Valley picnic stand to a full-service coffee shop offering hearty meals and friendly service. The laid-back atmosphere attracted a bevy of customers including local ranchers who brought in personal items to decorate the restaurant and make it feel even more like home.

By the turn of the 21st century, Wagon Wheel had established itself as a local landmark, delivering consistently good comfort food coupled with friendly service. Former waitress-turned-owner Taresa Blair recalls this time very well.

“I just remember being immediately drawn to the place when I started,” Blair says. “The food, the people, the whole atmosphere is just perfect for Carmel Valley.”

Back in 2003, after seven years of hosting and waitressing, Blair and her husband Matt had the opportunity to buy the business and secure its future.

And for nearly 20 years, the Blairs accomplished just that – guiding the Wagon Wheel to immense popularity with both locals and tourists, and even the occasional visiting celebrity (Doris Day, Bill Murray, Clint Eastwood, to name a few).

Then Covid-19 hit and the resulting shutdowns, as for restaurants industry-wide, were not easy. Following a financial bailout from internet celebrity Dave Portnoy and his Barstool Fund, the Blairs decided early in 2022 that it was time for them to bid the Wagon Wheel farewell.

Call it the seven-year switch. Head cook Daniel Medina, who, like Taresa Blair, was another seven-year Wagon Wheel employee and customer favorite, jumped at the chance to assume the reins. And now, after a brief closure during the transfer of ownership, the Wagon Wheel has reopened under new leadership.

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“To sell the business to an employee is a dream come true for us,” Blair says.

It’s a sentiment that Medina can appreciate, too. For now, he envisions continuing much in the same way the Blairs have.

“My plan is to not change a whole lot,” he says. “Our customers come here for a consistently good meal in a friendly, laid-back environment. I plan to keep the tradition alive for as long as I can.”

The menu offers a variety of breakfast options, from steak and eggs to Benedicts, omelets, pancakes and waffles, along with the ever-popular freshly squeezed orange juice. For the later riser, there’s a complete lunch menu with specials ranging from burgers to sand dabs and everything in between. Breakfast and lunch are both available all day.

“The only foreseeable change I could see is maybe opening a little earlier,” says the longtime morning cook. “I’m here anyway, so I might as well open the doors.” (The restaurant currently opens at 7am.)

But for now, it will be business as usual at the Wagon Wheel, which is all that the Blairs could’ve hoped for.

With Covid-19 shutdowns in the rearview and a business model that has stood the test of time, the Wagon Wheel looks ready to keep rolling for years to come.

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