COVID-19- DiStacio’s of Morro Bay: Another Small Business Survival Story

Written by Estero Bay News

August 14, 2020

Story and Photo by Judy Salamacha

Ken MacMillan made an intentional decision to leave his corporate America career to move to the Central Coast and work with family. He grew up in the heart of Boston’s Italian district where Old Country traditions and recipes were passed along to the next generation at the dinner table. Many of Ken’s siblings migrated to California’s Central Valley and Coast to open their version of an Italian-style family restaurant based on Mama Rosa DiStacio-MacMillan’s 100-year-old marinara.

Ken’s parents, Bill and Ada “Rosa” MacMillan, opened the first Rosa’s in Visalia in the 1960s then another in Bakersfield in 1972. Rosa led the way to SLO County opening Rosa’s Italian Restaurant in Pismo. Their policy at each new restaurant was to welcome patrons as family and give back to their adopted communities. On Thanksgiving, however, Mama Rosa closed her restaurant to the public and cooked for family to be together.   

Ken and wife Judy decided it was time to permanently reconnect with their son by working together on Mark’s dream for his own restaurant. It has always been about the food for Chef Mark, already seasoned well by those who’d been in the family business for years. For Ken, his years of implementing best business practices offered a perfect partnership to create a family owned small business.

In 2011 they decided to memorialize Mama Rosa’s maiden name and opened DiStacio’s in Los Osos. Success encouraged expansion to Morro Bay’s Embarcadero in 2015.  Following the family tradition of giving back to the community, Ken recognized an opportunity to consolidate facilities and spend more time working with Mark by restoring a City-owned longtime empty eyesore overlooking Morro Bay’s bay-front happenings. After a major investment to recreate a true taste of Italy, locals and visitors soon discovered Italian-style family friendly service with affordable cuisine and forever views.

Then three years ago plans changed. Not totally of their choosing another move was required. And probably due to his ingrained support of community and active support of the Morro Bay Chamber of Commerce board for numerous years, Ken chose to stay in Morro Bay. He purchased two commercial properties on Morro Bay Blvd. and restoration began again for DiStacio’s of Morro Bay.

“When we moved downtown, we knew we would need to change,” said Ken. Overlooking the Embarcadero, tourists easily found them, but locals would need to make DiStacio’s a preferred destination. “Business was going along as predicted. Our third year was to be our turn-around year. We were definitely on the upswing.”

And then Covid-19 hit hard in March. Ken said, “We thought we were safe. We had outdoor dining and could socially distance our tables. We didn’t expect a shutdown and I never thought of closing down, but I knew we needed to create a take-out business we didn’t have. We were also forced to cut staff. It was Mark cooking and Marci and I handling orders.”

Soon he realized they had achieved building their locally based clientele. “People were glad we were open and I was overwhelmed by their generosity. Some tipped almost as much as the cost of the meal. I was still spending twice as much to serve half as many, but we were making it.” 

By Memorial Day we were allowed to open for inside dining. “Some wondered what took us so long. With little notice it took awhile to order the supplies we needed to offer a safe, comfortable experience.”

Then, without warning, in July the Governor announced another shutdown. “We were led to believe we would always get a two-three day notice when things would change, but that didn’t happen.” By design DiStacio’s had plenty of patio and parking lot space for outdoor eating. “We were set up, but I felt bad for others.” He echoed a letter from the Chamber to the City recommending they approve non-traditional outdoor space for dining. “We need to support each other if we are going to stay in business.”
So how has DiStacio’s survive COVID-19 so far? Ken offered a few tips:
• Hire employees with personality – you can teach them skills;
• Store only 2-3 days of product. Keep it fresh, but be prepared for change;
• Limit menu items;
• Get to know and work with business neighbors and be friendly with local customers. They will be around long after the tourists go home this fall and winter;  
• Understand, “WE DIDN’T CAUSE THIS.” Apply for the government assistance even if you put it in a CD and pay it back. It is never good business to not protect our businesses from the bad times.
• Use the slower times to look for new ways to improve business. 

“And for sure, not just as a longtime Chamber board member,” added Ken, “but rather as a small business in Morro Bay that has benefited from the services provided by our understaffed Chamber during COVID-19, please, support the Chamber today. CEO Erica Crawford has worked nonstop for all our businesses, not just members. She’s provided the most current updates and where to find the resources we need. I hope our business community will reward the Chamber’s efforts by being as generous as our customers have been with their tipping. Please, join and participate.” 

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