Moving Forward: How Business Thrives in a Tourism Marketplace

Written by Judy Salamacha

April 19, 2024

La Katrina co-owner Rafael Hernandez shows molcajete, a new favorite menu item at the Morro Bay restaurant. Photo courtesy of Wendy Morales

Once my family relocated to Morro Bay and I began writing stories for area newspapers, I asked my associate, Neil Farrell, why so many businesses seemed to close after barely a year open. He reminded me it was a tourism economy, so the businesses must depend on the locals to help get them through the winter months. Over the years I have also grown to appreciate that business ownership success means going beyond the necessary steps recommended to guarantee they stay in business – offering a quality product at affordable pricing, friendly customer service, an attractive ambiance and longtime management experience.   

Speaking for myself, as our family has enjoyed frequenting our neighborhood restaurant over the past year, I felt comfortable asking the ownership of La Katrina Authentic Mexican Cuisine how they had weathered the winter since celebrating their first anniversary November 21, 2023. Had they planned for a tourism market economy to make it through what Visit Morro Bay calls the “shoulder season?” As an example of such a new business to Morro Bay, I wondered how they had prepared for the anticipated slow times. Owners Rafael Hernandez and Wendy and Hector Morales shared what they did. 

Instantly, Rafael wanted me to thank the locals – their loyal customers – for returning regularly during the slow months. “It is all about our customers and the relationship we try to build with them.”   

Wendy added, “We decided to call our first year in business our community builder year. It took six months of hard work to open the restaurant. We even opened for dining before our liquor license came through. Once we celebrated our grand opening, we had agreed we all needed to spend our first year being out there and getting to know our community.” 

So besides taking on extra duty while serving new customers at the restaurant from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily with a brief break Sundays to close at 3 p.m., the partners personally attended, sponsored and catered breakfast for nine months at the newly created Morro Bay Chamber of Commerce themed breakfast meetings on the third Wednesday of each month. Rafael, Wendy and periodically Hector were also present at the Chamber-sponsored Shop, Sip & Stroll events downtown and on the Embarcadero. They offered street tacos at the Morro Bay Maritime Family Fun Day and participated in special events for the Morro Bay and Cayucos Rotary Clubs and an anniversary event for the Grizzly Youth Academy based in SLO County. 

Wendy was particularly proud that her signature Carrot Cake sold for $700 at the Chamber’s annual Gala event with proceeds benefiting local scholarship. Both families have students in local elementary and high schools.       

The Hernandez and Morales families relocated to SLO County from larger markets – Santa Barbara and San Diego. Rafael said, “In Santa Barbara the pace was constant. It took years to get to know people, but in Morro Bay I feel I already know so many of our customers.” 

The partners realized it was not only refreshing to get to know Morro Bay customers, but it has been invaluable marketing. Their new “friends” became ambassadors to let others know they enjoyed the cuisine and that they were available to offer onsite and offsite catering. 

“We are always open to trying just about anything our customers suggest,” said Wendy. “We have even hosted a Celebration of Life at the restaurant.”  

Cal Poly, Morro Bay fire and police departments have had recent group gatherings and during December they hosted holiday parties. The original restaurant configuration came with a private dining room where they can host at least a dozen guests for meetings and special events.  

When it comes to longevity in the industry, the partners have a combined expertise of more than 72 years. Rafael spent twenty-four years at Pepe’s Mexican Restaurant in Santa Barbara/Goleta. He worked his way up from washing dishes to manager of the popular eatery. His management skills were further developed while owning a Mexican Market in Santa Barbara for six years. In 2017 he had the opportunity to move to SLO County. He purchased Nucci’s Pizza on Foothill. However, with a long history as a chef, he preferred to offer patrons his authentic recipes sourced from growing up in Zacatecas, Mexico. Rafael said he also missed, “…the camaraderie with my customers.” So, in 2020 he sold the pizzeria and opened Poncho’s Mexican Restaurant, located on Johnson in SLO.  

“My entire family works with my wife, Adela Christina, and I in the business,” he said.  

Authentic flavors Rafael grew up enjoying have always been important to him. When he discovered Hector and Wendy felt the same way, he suggested they become partners in a restaurant in Morro Bay while his family continued to operate Poncho’s. Their combined family recipes have been recreated at both locations.   

“Hector and Rafael working together in the kitchen add the spice to our flavors,” Wendy said with a smile. “They create the magic.” 

Rafael hired Hector when the Morales family moved to San Luis Obispo from San Diego. The couple had operated an Asian restaurant, Pick-up Stix, for eighteen years. Rafael hired Hector at Poncho’s while Wendy worked at the Hungry Fisherman in Morro Bay for six years.  

What is the most asked question, I wondered, assuming it was which authentic menu item was their personal favorite? But patrons are more curiosity about the origins of their unique decorating ambiance. 

“It is based on the traditional Mexican Catrina, a symbol of life in our culture,” said Wendy. “For us it represents happiness and remembrances of our ancestors.”  

Rafael added, “Life, death and color – a catrina dresses in many colors.” 

I had to ask what their most popular menu item was. I was not surprised it was one of their humongous burritos – the Shrimp Burrito – as well as the Grilled Fish Tacos and the Morro Bay Enchilada. For breakfast my daughter’s favorite is their La Katrina French Toast. She also loves the Churros. I think of my mother’s custard every time I order their flan. A new favorite I have yet to try is the unique Molcajete with shrimp, avocado, and cactus spears served in a volcanic rock bowl. 

Check out their website There is often something new like Monday Seniors’ Night offering a 15% discount on food ordered.  

The partners requested I let everyone know how blessed they feel by the community’s welcome and support these past fourteen months. What I personally believe is that it works both ways. We are blessed that La Katrina’s owners have chosen to operate their business in Morro Bay and choose to reinvest back into our community with their time and resources. Working together we are all better served and build better communities. 

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