Columnist Judy Salamacha

DiStasio’s Opening Downtown Morro Bay

Then & Now

By Judy Salamacha

Mangia! Mangia! DiStasio’s Italian Ristorante is ready to welcome guests for dinner at their new home in Downtown Morro Bay.

DiStasio’s principal owner, Ken MacMillan, says, “First thing you do when visiting family is head for the kitchen. You may never get out…just eat and eat.”

And, thus, it has been the family business for generations — serving Italian cuisine from recipes dating back 150 years. Ken had three brothers and a sister, all who created and whose families operate 11 restaurants in the Central Valley and on the Central Coast, including Rosa’s, Sorella’s and Joseph’s in Bakersfield, Rosa’s in Pismo Beach and DiStasio’s in Morro Bay.

Ken, and son, Mark MacMillan, are excited about their latest — and final — move for DiStasio’s. “We plan to be here for years and hope to add vitality to upper Morro Bay Boulevard, be part of a fun, vibrant Downtown,” Ken said. They invite locals and visitors to enjoy their family traditions. “It’s an Italian thing — a good meal, hearty wine and meaningful conversation.”

Ken describes their new location as an attractive corner venue with front and side patio dining sheltered by lighted trees. Inside is bright and open with high ceilings, tables and a few booths, a wine bar and, of course, Italian decor and background music. And they have their own parking lot, too.

Mark manages the operations side of the business. “I’m thrilled,” he said. “Employees won’t have to train as much because everything they knew from our Market Street location is there. Either we brought it up or it’s new and the design is the way we wanted it — more functional.”

Mark always wanted to be in the family business. He started working at Rosa’s in Bakersfield at 12 and helped open Rosa’s in Pismo for his Uncle Bill, all the while hoping the MacMillan Family might find their dream coastal location. “I was always industrious, wanting to find ways to make money,” Mark said.

He worked for a few corporate restaurants, but preferred working for family. “It offered security and I never hated my job because we were treated like family. We hope we’re family at DiStasio’s for our employees and our patrons.”

Ken, however, had a different career path. “We lived in Boston,” he recalled. “Mom was Italian and worked at a meat packing plant. Dad was Scottish and a laborer in the Navy yard. After high school, I enlisted and served four years — three in the States and one in Vietnam. Then it cost me $60 a month to go to the University of Massachusetts on the GI bill.”

A Detroit computer company recruited him after he earned and MBA in marketing. He spent 10 years traveling, while the company went international. “I’d be gone three weeks then spend quality time with Mark giving [wife] Judy a break. We lived in Detroit, Toronto, and New York.”

Unisys, a global information technology company based in Pennsylvania took over. He gave them two years to guide the company merger through the transition. Ken said, “I was flying again,” but he was able to headquarter in Bakersfield where most of the family had migrated.

Wife Ida’s allergies prompted Bill to relocate from the Valley to Pismo. The protocol was always family helps family. The McMillans helped open Rosa’s in Pismo. And while Ken finished his corporate career, Judy and Mark finally found and opened a coastal location in Los Osos. Ken would soon join their team full time.

They loved their cozy location and cliental in Los Osos (on 10th Street), so when an Embarcadero restaurant on the water in Morro Bay became available, they expanded and operated both locations.

The 2006 economic climate forced them to merge resources into the Market Street location, which had sat empty for 11 years. Hoping they could eventually buy the hilltop location with a full view of the bay, Ken said, “We invested major improvements, but it didn’t work out. Yes, this time we own our Downtown location.” (That building is now owned by the City of Morro Bay.)

But for Ken and Mark, it’s truly about the food they prepare, the patrons they serve, the staff they train, and the communities they become involved in. As Ken takes care of the “paperwork” side of the business, as Mark calls it, he has been an active director of the Morro Bay Chamber of Commerce for five years.

Father and son make daily decisions together while Mark oversees the day-to-day operations. Each family restaurant is allied, but Mark explained that each family might adapt the traditional recipes slightly differently and they all offer signature dishes that might not be Italian. Common is a relaxed family atmosphere.

Each year at Thanksgiving, the entire family — some 50 to 60 members — meets for dinner in Pismo.

At first DiStasio’s will open just for dinner, but Ken added, “We’re hoping to offer lunch. We call it an Express Lunch Menu — walk in, order and we’ll bring it to your table. Our Downtown business people don’t have time to linger at lunch.”

With advice and support from his life partner, Marci, as well as his mom and dad, Mark runs the day-to-day operations. “DiStasio’s steaks are the best…and you can’t beat our 150-year-old Italian marinara sauces that take 8 hours to make.” Mangia, Mangia!

Freelance writer, columnist and author of “Colonel Baker’s Field: An American Pioneer Story,” Judy Salamacha’s Then & Now column is a regular feature of Simply Clear Marketing & Media. Contact her at: judysalamacha@gmail.com or (805) 801-1422 with story ideas.

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