May 29, 2020 – Downtown Dining, the parent company behind local dynasties Montrio Bistro and Tarpy’s Roadhouse in Monterey and Rio Grill in Carmel, has sold to Canadian-Americans.
If that sounds like big news, it is. If it sounds like unfortunate news, it isn’t. What on its surface appears ominous—beloved, locally-grounded institutions sold to outsiders—turns out to be a very promising development, at least on its surface.
More on that in a second. First a reminder why it’s big news.
If Monterey County restaurants had a Hall of Fame, this team would be the only restaurant group with three members in it. If Monterey-area restaurants were England, this would be its Royal Family. If Monterey Peninsula restaurants…OK, you get the idea.
Between Rio, Tarpy’s and Montrio they’ve essentially won every award one would want in local polls, including best overall in their respective cities, best business lunch, best small bites, best chef, best steakhouse and best restaurant over 10 years old.
I’ve been covering them for 15 years, and eating at them for 25. Each has taken a turn as my favorite restaurant in the region. They play by the book, taking care of their workers and earning retention that’s rare in any industry, let alone restaurants. They promote from within. They help cultivate some of the region’s most influential chefs, tastemakers and bartenders. At all three linchpin properties, they’ve developed unique settings, memorable menu identities and loyal followings.
Tony Tollner is a major reason that’s the case. He’s been co-owner and managing partner for well over three decades. As he writes in an open letter to the community scheduled to be published next week, he’s “made countless friends, enjoyed prosperity and good health and experienced all the blessings that over 36 years in the same job provides.”
It’s a heartfelt letter that you can tell he invested time in crafting.
“You all have taught me so much about service, hospitality and, most importantly, community,” he writes. “I am stepping down from my position with Downtown Dining to spend more time on other parts of my life. I look forward to exploring other interests and avenues with my partner, Julie [Conrad], and frankly, spending more time ‘smelling the roses.’”
When I asked him about said roses, he mentioned riding his sport touring motorcycle, practicing more yoga and meditation, and planting a garden. He’ll also continue to soup up junker cars at home and race them with the likes of longtime Montrio Chef Tony Baker, who retired in February to build out his Baker’s Bacon business.
I first started reporting on the sale last November. Downtown Dining partners the Cox family and Tollner had decided it was time for a new chapter, they found experienced and committed suitors in Mona Calis and Ken Donkersloot, and they started drafting a deal.
Calis grew up in her family’s restaurant and worked in restaurants through college and early adulthood, later managing a range of fine-dining restaurants in Winnipeg. After the couple moved to San Clemente for work she became a full-time mom, but still couldn’t resist helping with her friend’s catering business.
“Hospitality industry is in her blood,” Donkersloot says.
His contributions are born of decades of work as a research scientist-turned-business-executive fine tuning operations ranging from startups to Fortune 500 companies like IBM, most recently Unitedhealth Group.
“I know how to leverage resources and drive people towards a vision,” he says, adding that he also understands his shortcomings well, which is why he interviewed five hospitality consulting firms to help him evaluate and optimize what Downtown Dining can do.
He settled on Toronto-based The Fifteen Group and has been picking their brains for more than a year to recognize potential synergies and opportunities. For now the to-do list includes building a more central Downtown Dining brand, leveraging its managerial wisdom across all three restaurants, consolidating operation costs, expanding catering and dialing in curbside services (which was part of the plan pre-COVID-19).
“We are ready to take things to the next level,” Donkersloot says.
Tollner recognizes an encouraging combination of qualities in the new owners. “Passion, resources and business acumen [made] them great candidates,” he says. “They also had a willingness to perpetuate the wonderful history of these restaurants.”
Employees had started quietly filling out transitional paperwork in fall of last year when the sale came to a stunning and screeching halt and both sides filed lawsuits accusing the other of undermining the sale.
“It’s a complex deal,” Donkersloot says, citing some confidentiality agreements that prevent him from furnishing greater detail about the fallout. “All parties were challenged by it, but we never stopped pursuing it, trying to make it work, and we’re comfortable with where it is now.”
Now that the both parties are happy and the deal has been finalized, the Donkersloots have issued a statement that reads, in part, “Our goal is to continue to build and expand the restaurants into one of the premier hospitality groups on the peninsula.”
“I’m excited to jump in where I can,” Calis says. “I can’t wait to get to know managers better and understand how they each run their front-of the house, [and] just being a bigger part of everything—local schools, local charities, building relationships with everyone coming through the door, whether that’s clients, our workers or management.”
The leadership at each restaurant remains in place, namely: Debbie Edwards, general manager of Tarpy’s, Kathy Solley, GM at Montrio Bistro, and Gabe de la Vega, GM at Rio Grill. All three chefs—Gabby Arguilles, Justin Robarge and Eduardo “DiCaprio” Coronel, respectively, will also stay on.
In some ways, Calis and Donkersloot (which means “dark ditch” in Dutch; Calis declined to take his last name when they married) seem most excited about leveraging their institutional knowledge through strategic meetings that unite leaders from each property.
“We both believe in team development and are committed to creating extraordinary experiences for customers, employees, business partners and the community,” the statement continues. “Our focus extends beyond what’s on the plate and in the glass—directly to the people we serve and the employees we hire.
“We strive to inspire healthier, more vibrant communities by connecting people to quality food prepared and served with honesty and integrity. We accomplish this by attracting and retaining employees that fit our culture and share our principles and vision for the future.”
They pledge to perpetuate dedication to staff development by “providing training and empowerment while embracing diversity within a creative, rewarding and respectful environment.” Donkersloot also describes plans to structure a profit-sharing plan and extend healthcare to hourly workers.
“We want to create a premiere brand employees want to participate in,” he says. “We’re taking what’s there and providing value-added. We’re confident in the future and that all the restaurants will be elevated.”
The transition comes just as Tarpy’s Roadhouse and Rio Grill aim to reopen for curbside takeout 11:30am–7:30pm daily starting June 6. Montrio Bistro’s hours and precise opening date are TBD for the week of June 15.
Thinking about what these places mean to the area led me down a nostalgic path that landed me in the shoebox-sized managerial office at Rio Grill, circa early 2000s.
Last time I sat in there I was fresh out of college, seeking a summer job in restaurants to stack some money for a move to Buenos Aires. Rio Grill was booming, and happened to be my go-to spot for the house-smoked half chicken with baby artichokes. After a pair of interviews, Tollner told me he’d love to have me on the team. Then he added one final thought that he spun into a question.
“We’re looking for long-term commitment, not a temporary one,” he said from about a foot away, in that tiny office, his eyes boring into and through mine, down into my soul. “Are you willing to make that investment?”
His look snapped my will like a twig. I knew if I wanted the payday I needed to lie. Instead I told him the truth, and walked away to find other work.
In the process of that exchange he hit on what makes Downtown Dining’s outposts great: commitment that burrows down to the soul. These are more than restaurants, they are part of a community’s heart.
Their new owners are saying and doing all the right things. Time—and a restaurant industry that’s as challenging as any time in history—will reveal the heart and soul they bring with that.