From left, Daren Hilyard, general manager, Dave Fansler, owner, Michael Vernon, executive chef and Emily Spinaloza, director of operations make up the management team for Fansler Restaurant Group. Photo by Edward Smith

published on November 12, 2019 - 2:01 PM
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A new home for the popular Pismo’s Coastal Grill in north Fresno may hold the key to the seafood restaurant’s legacy as its owner looks toward retirement.

Even to the surprise of some of the staff, owner Dave Fansler announced via Instagram Oct. 24 that the 10-year-old restaurant would pack up and move about a 100 yards away to an undeveloped site in the Villaggio Shopping Center. And he wants to do the project without any bank financing.

Fansler said his current space isn’t meeting his needs. Kitchen staff have to navigate a cramped 1,200 square foot kitchen to serve the hundreds of people they might see a night. Size constraints have also kept the restaurant from getting into take-out, something Fansler wants to bring to the new location.

He purchased the 1.81-acre about four years ago, with the intention of building residential real estate. But it ended up suiting the bill for a new eatery.

“As time went on, I kept thinking, ‘you know, I really need more space at Pismo’s,’” Fansler said. “Being a landlord is a good idea and I would make a good tenant for myself.”

The undeveloped land behind Total Wine & Spirits would allow construction of an expanded fish market, storage space for fish and crustaceans, and most importantly — a larger kitchen.

Fansler wants to break ground within the year. He estimates the project to cost $8 million, with about $6 million coming out of his own pocket. The rest he hopes to raise in private financing.

Of all the restaurants past and present that make up the Fansler Restaurant Group — Yosemite Ranch, Westwoods BBQ, Pismo’s and the now-closed Tahoe Joe’s — all have been financed privately.

Offering partial ownership stakes or debt was preferable for Fansler rather than “having to deal with the bank.”

“It’s more expensive to do it with private money, but I just didn’t have the patience to sit down and go through the litany of questions and jump through all the hoops the bank would put me through,” he said.

He’s submitted rezoning applications with the City of Fresno and hopes to have the new site open within 10 months of construction.

As for the old location, Fansler still has four years on the lease and is considering subleasing.

Upsizing to between 8,000 and 9,000 square feet from 6,700, the extra space at the new restaurant would allow the fish market to increase by 50%. The whole fish coming into Pismo’s takes up a lot of space. Halibut, swordfish and opah can weigh up to 80 pounds. He also wants to bring king crab to the menu. And In order to serve fish fresh, it has to be kept whole otherwise it begins to oxidize, Fansler said.

Taking in whole fish also means it has to be butchered on-site. The kitchen is so limited that all of the fileting for the restaurant and the market is done there behind the counter.

Ten years ago, it was the fish market that assured Fansler the seafood restaurant could work.

When Fansler first signed the lease for Pismo’s in 2007, it was at the height of the real estate bubble. He says people were wary of a seafood restaurant in the area.

“I signed that lease when the stock market was around 12,000, and then turned around and it went to eight,” Fansler said. “That just dried up all investors. Nobody wanted any part of a restaurant, and nobody wanted any part of a seafood restaurant in Fresno.”

But Fansler thought the proximity to the coast and the population size in the area could fill an open niche in the market.

In order to complete the project, he had to go back to some of his early investors and offer them more money and better investment options to double their investment.

“When we opened in November ‘09 I had $1,000 in the bank. I wasn’t sure I was going to get to the finish line,” he said.

But when construction crews said they needed to install a steel support beam 60 days before finishing the space, it jeopardized the “coast feel” that Fansler says made him believe in the project. Fansler sent construction crews home while he thought of solutions to the problem. What came from the dilemma is the fish market guests see today.

“You’re standing in front of the hostess stand and you can look at the fish from two feet away, you automatically become a believer,” Fansler said. “It was the luckiest thing I’ve ever done in the restaurant business.”

Now, after 40 years of being in the business, Fansler says he now has to think about retirement. Family will retain some of the ownership, but he’s developed a management succession plan for operations of his restaurants.

“I want to take Pismo’s to the place that when you’re visiting Fresno, you don’t leave unless you’ve gone to Pismo’s,” Fansler said. “That’s where I want to be toward the end of my career, to have built such a thing and have it contribute like it does to the community.”

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