March 20, 2018 – With renovation of the historic Cooper Molera Adobe in downtown Monterey about halfway complete, Edible Monterey Bay can now report on the exciting new restaurant, bakery and café complex expected to open there this summer as part of a groundbreaking partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Longtime restaurateur and realtor Kirk Probasco is partnering on the project with wildly creative local pastry chef Ben Spungin and Sonoma restaurant manager P.J. Clark. Together they’ve formed the Alta Group to operate two businesses on the historic 2.5-acre property.
Alta Bakery and Café—projected to open in June—will be located in the Corner Store building at the intersection of Polk, Munras and Alvarado St. In addition to espressos and coffee drinks, a glass showcase sunk into the counter just inside the front door will offer Spungin’s freshly-baked breads, croissants, and morning pastries, as well as more elaborate desserts like pies, panna cotta, pot de crème, fruit tarts, as well as his renowned chocolates.
Spungin is outfitting a tight kitchen in the back and says he plans to set out pies to cool on the thick adobe windowsill to fill the neighborhood with delicious smells.
“The Corner Store dates back to 1884 and used to be called the Pioneer Bakery,” says Probasco. “But we didn’t want to use the historic name, we looked for a hip, modern name to bridge that historic nature with 2018.” Alta refers back to colonial times, when Monterey was the capital of Spanish Alta California.
Next door to the bakery in the Diaz Adobe will be the café, with indoor seating for about 30 customers at long tables that are currently being built with wood salvaged from the barn renovation. Historic photos and museum displays will hang on the walls.
Seating for an additional 30 to 40 customers will be available on an outdoor patio near the adobe’s old stone well.
Lunch items like sandwiches, salads, soup and pizza will be served in the café along with beer and wine. Grab-and-go lunch foods will also be sold in the bakery.
“With the rent we’re paying and the anticipated revenues, being just a bakery was not enough, so we added lunch and want it to be a 7am to 7pm gig,” added Probasco.
Cella Restaurant (pronounced chel-la) is set to open in July in the old Spear Warehouse, that was once used to store produce, like artichokes and asparagus, before being shipped to San Francisco.
The high-ceilinged, open-beam dining room is being designed with a hip, young vibe, including a stained cement floor and exposed adobe brick wall with dramatic lighting behind the bar. It will also have outdoor seating around a fire pit and trellises with outdoor heaters for chilly evenings.
“We want it to be a really casual spot with accessible prices,” Probasco says. “We’re going to be looking at the area and what it provides, but going for globally-inspired, locally-sourced cuisine.”
Spungin, the Alta Group’s culinary director, will oversee all food preparation and put together a team to create a menu for the upcoming restaurant.
“We’re going to keep the food light and simple and beautiful, so that people will feel great when they are here and want to come back again and again,” he says.
Spungin—who will continue his current work as pastry chef at Post Ranch Inn through April—says the move from pastry to overall culinary director is not such a leap. “I’m ready for it,” he says. “For me it’s an easy role to step into because of all the collaboration that goes on in the kitchen. The pastry chef job doesn’t have walls, you’re not just in the corner in dessert world, you are collaborating with the chef and tasting new dishes and that’s what I’ll be doing here.”
Previously, Spungin worked for Thomas Keller’s French Laundry and spent eight years under chef Cal Stamenov at Bernardus Lodge, where he created show-stopping environmental desserts like terrariums gardens, and inventive and amusing after dinner surprises like his illicit sweets and chocolate mustaches.
While working with chef Cal he also developed strong relationships with local farmers and foragers, and plans to use some of them—Savor the Local, for example—at Cooper Molera. (For more on Spungin see https://ediblemontereybay.com/blog/pastry-wizard-ben-spungin-heading-to-post-ranch/)
“I’m excited to work down the street from Ron (Mendoza) at Revival Ice Cream, he’s a buddy, and I’m excited to work near Alvarado St. Brewing,” says Spungin. “Those guys are so creative and already doing so much to improve Alvarado St. We want to do the same with Cooper Molera and get even more people to come downtown. In the end this is a project for the community.”
P.J. Clark—director of operations for the business—is still house hunting and will soon be moving south from Sonoma, where she is the general manager of the HopMonk Tavern, owned by Dean Biersch of Gordon Biersch Brewery. Previously she owned her own restaurant called Maya on the historic square in Sonoma and she has been friends with Probasco for 30 years, since they worked together in Cindy Pawlcyn’s restaurant group.
“P.J. has this ability to create an extraordinary atmosphere for patrons and for staff,” he says. “Every place she has ever run has been known as the best place to work in town.”
Probasco is probably best known to local residents as the former owner of Stokes Restaurant (now Restaurant 1833) for 13 years from 1996 to 2009. He has been involved with the Cooper Molera project since it was just a dream of developer Doug Wiele, founder of Foothill Partners.
“I met Doug at the bar at Stokes, where he used to come in and eat when he was working on the Trader Joe’s project,” says Probasco. “After the restaurant closed, we began a business relationship in 2010 with an eye towards doing something with the Cooper Molera complex.”
“He’s such a visionary guy, that’s when we started talking to the National Trust. They’ve got 27 historic properties around the country and their model of museum-gift shop is dead. It just doesn’t work anymore,” Probasco says.
After years of meetings with the City of Monterey, the community and historic preservationists, they secured the cooperation of the trust, which sees Cooper Molera as a model of shared use and a possible way to finance the preservation of many of the other historic properties that they own throughout the United States.
The two-story redwood barns and former stables at the rear of the property have already been leased to Events by Classic (see EMB https://ediblemontereybay.com/blog/1st-tenant-signed-for-cooper-molera-adobe-project/), which plans to use them for weddings and private parties.
Foothill is investing $6.5 million in renovating the 2.5-acre site, including seismic reinforcement. The National Trust will continue to run the adobe museum and offer educational programs, like Christmas in the Adobes and history classes for third and fourth grade school children.
The gardens and orchard will be re-opened to the public free of charge, after construction is completed.
Deborah Luhrman is publisher and editor of Edible Monterey Bay. A lifelong journalist, she has reported from around the globe, but now prefers covering our flourishing local food scene and growing her own vegetables in the Santa Cruz Mountains.