When Ken Donkersloot and Mona Calis first started thinking about buying a group of Peninsula restaurants and relocating their family from San Clemente in Orange County to Carmel it was February 2019, they were looking at acquiring three bustling restaurants in a thriving culinary scene. But by the time they finalized the deal to buy Downtown Dining – which includes Tarpy’s Roadhouse and Montrio Bistro in Monterey, and Rio Grill in Carmel – it was May 2020, mid-pandemic, and all three restaurants had laid off staff and been closed for over two months.
That closure meant their first tasks as the new owners didn’t involve menu or cocktail tastings. The first two weeks were all about cleaning places that are normally cleaned at least daily, and instead had been sitting idle, gathering dust and grease.
“The restaurants were entirely shut down, so we went through two cleaning cycles,” Donkersloot says. “Then there was a sanitization component. We had a couple of weeks, so it was a tight timeline.”
Then came reopening the well loved spots, starting on June 5 with curbside pickup at Tarpy’s and Rio, then dine-in service on June 15 at all three. Tarpy’s – which has the advantage of a spacious and well-appointed courtyard, surrounded by an old-timey stone wall – has continued to do a brisk business, particularly with long summer nights and all that outdoor seating.
Indoors, tables have been rearranged at Montrio to separate groups of diners, and on a recent Monday night those limited tables are mostly full. But there’s still a paradoxical feeling of both scarcity and excess all at once, standard for this era of reopening – a host is anxious about seating a group of two at a large table just for a drink because they’re waiting on new linens, which are in short supply, given the one-time-use policy. But there seem to be two servers per customer, eager to accommodate, with the same effusive hospitality Montrio’s staff has always had, just this time through face masks. And the menu and creative cocktail list, with innovations like the Fractured Fairytale (with Toki Japanese whisky, ardbeg, cocchi Americano, Lazzaroni fernet and tobacco bitters) still on offer.
It was a long journey for Donkersloot and Calis to buy these restaurants from Tony Tollner, who sold the business after 30 years at the helm and retired.
The deal was more than a year in the making, and earlier this year, went south. Donkersloot and Calis’ Blue Ocean Venture Holdings sued Tollner and Downtown Dining on Feb. 27 in Monterey County Superior Court, then Tollner sued them four days later, with both sides alleging misrepresentations and breach of contract. On May 21, they requested the suits be dismissed, just as this final deal was announced.
“It’s a challenging transaction, a complex transaction,” Donkersloot says, adding that by the time they closed the deal, everyone was getting along.
Donkersloot and Calis say they intend to keep most things the same – not easy given that everything about the restaurant business has changed – with the exception of running the three restaurants more as a group rather than independently, building up more of the catering and banquet side of the business, and looking for some efficiencies in things like technology and purchasing that can be shared across all three.
Calis’ focus will be on the front-of-house. “All the restaurants are different, and the management styles and teams are different,” she says. “Initially I am just looking forward to getting to know them at each, what’s made them successful, and learn from them. We want it to feel like family; we want to be just entrenched in the community.”
On the front-of-house side, in their first month the new owners have already made one big change, promoting Debbie Edwards to vice president, area general manager. She started out as a server at Tarpy’s in 1993, became a manager in 1996 and has been general manager of Tarpy’s since 2000.
The goal remains to bring back 100 percent of the staff, if there’s enough work. Pandemic aside, it’s a long-term dream for Donkersloot and Calis to run them: “We’d been pursuing these restaurants,” he says. “They’re institutions.”