On a recent weekday afternoon, Spirit of San Luis restaurant—located at the SLO airport and known for many years to locals for its aviation-themed menu items and unique ambiance—was filled to capacity and owner Ellen Stanton was definitely in her element. Smiling, greeting customers, working the register and checking in with the wait staff, she handled the crazy busy lunch crowd effortlessly—the sign of a true professional who makes a difficult job look easy. Ellen and her husband Mike purchased the business this past year after selling their locally renowned deli Gus’s Grocery and learning that Spirit’s former owners were retiring.
“We saw the potential and we were looking around for another project,” Ellen said about their decision to take over the venue where diners enjoy watching the airport traffic land and depart and where small aircraft travelers often fly in for lunch or the weekend and make Spirit part of their trip.
The Stantons knew going in that the airport had undergone major changes that included relocating the main terminal further away from the restaurant but they also realized the local patron base was strong and loyal.
“The backbone of our business is local customers; tourists and travelers are the gravy,” Ellen pointed out. “Our regulars are who we want to cater to.” Moreover, they’d contracted with the County for the lease with the expectation that they would “freshen up” the location to keep it viable. “It’s charming here: the views, people flying in and out and stopping in—it has a lot of style. We have a lot to work with,” she said confidently.
Ellen noted that one of the restaurant’s biggest draws is “our great Sunday brunch,” especially when families come and the kids enjoy watching the airstrip and all the airport goings-on. “They really like the private jets, it’s fun,” she said. The Spirit, which recently celebrated the Stanton’s one-year anniversary of ownership, is one of a rare breed that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. “American style,” Ellen characterized the fare. “Three meals a day, seven days a week.”
The kicker for the ultimate decision to buy the business, however, was the sense of a close-knit operation that can’t be replicated in a start-up.
“It was a family business that we walked into,” she said noting that many of the employees have been there for more than 20 years. And, one of the “regulars,” Ercole Brughelli, says Ellen, “eats here twice a day. He’s fascinating to talk to.” Groups regularly book the patio for gatherings and parties and adds Ellen happily, “We now have our own dedicated parking spaces.”
Ellen’s love for the food industry started in her teens. “I’ve worked in and owned restaurants for 38 years,” she said, explaining she started out in the culinary business at age 16 and after graduating high school moved to San Luis to attend Cuesta College and then Cal Poly as a Home Economics major with an emphasis on Food and Business. “This major allowed me to take classes in business, journalism, marketing and nutrition. I was able to learn all about my passion and also worked during that time at local businesses: Howard Johnson’s, Louisa’s, Whale’s Tail, The Cliffs.”
Eventually, Ellen and a business partner purchased Gus’s Grocery and not long afterward she made the acquaintance of and eventually married Mike Stanton, himself an up-and-comer in the local dining scene.
“We met through the milkman,” she laughed. “Mike was working at F. McLintock’s Saloon and so the milkman being our mutual friend introduced us. We opened Cisco’s (which Mike operated while Ellen continued with Gus’s) in the Network the weekend after we married in 1991.”
Over the next decade or two, the couple was prolific in expanding their family and their dining acquisitions. Baby girl Caitlin was born in 1995 and her sister Claire joined the family two years later. They opened Cisco’s and Pasta Tazzo in the Network and had other businesses in San Luis Obispo as well. As their girls grew and their time shrank, Ellen and Mike decided to downsize some of their work obligations and sold Cisco’s and Pasta Tazzo to their employees. Mike, a master woodworker, focused on his booming “side business” The Cabinet Shop and also became the manager of the San Luis Country Club while Ellen maintained operations at Gus’s, which had grown to become a local favorite corner deli with its packed patio and serious overflow on the sidewalk.
Most recently, after acquiring Spirit, Ellen took charge of that operation while Mike works weekdays in Bakersfield with a country club management business and commutes home on the weekends. Ellen credits Mike greatly for her opportunity with the Spirit. “He helped me get this started,” she said. “He’s so good at business, he knows all the answers. He’s my number one asset.”
Ellen says her life has been a happy one. “I had a great childhood,” she said. “My family was in 4-H and we were all swimmers and into water sports. We would come to Pismo Beach for camping and head to the Sierras for backpacking.” The youngest of four children born to Bob and Marilyn Brooks in Woodland, CA, Ellen said her father, Bob, was a coach at nearby UC Davis. After high school, Ellen followed her oldest sister to Cal Poly (via Cuesta College) where the girls lived in a house her parents had purchased. “I was fortunate to stay here after graduation,” she said, “although, after my first desk job, I realized that was not the career for me.”
Daughters Caitlin and Claire have both been part of the “family business” over the years and recently Ellen and Mike drove Caitlin, who graduated from Cal Poly earlier this year, to Lubbock, Texas where she will work toward her Master’s Degree in Agricultural Communication from Texas Tech and work in the department in an assistantship while attending school. Claire will remain working with Ellen at Spirit full time while pursuing programs to build her own line of marketing. Though both girls are now gone from the family home, Ellen doesn’t exhibit any of the hand-wringing signs of an empty nester. “I think it’s important for kids to go out and figure it out on their own,” she said. Ellen said her at-home companionship now includes Lexi, an eight-pound terrier mix that Claire brought home when she was in the fifth grade and a flock of chickens.
Not that she’s home that much. Working 10 – 12 hour days, Ellen says it’s taken a while to run the daily business while working on the “refresh” aspect. “We’ve made some menu changes and are very excited about the upgrades, especially for dinner. The new menus just went to the printer,” she said just a tad anxiously. “We haven’t done a lot of advertising but on the other hand, we’re really the only three-meal-a-day restaurant this side of town and we do have a full bar. We enjoy seeing the locals and serving nice quality, tasty food while enjoying the pace and challenges of owning a restaurant.”
Summing it up, Ellen said, “It’s been a good run. This town has always been supportive and we are very appreciative—that’s what inspires us to continue.” As for the future, she holds up her hands and flashes her signature smile: “I’m a one-restaurant person at a time now. I have a unique location and want to make it the best it can be. It works because I enjoy it.”
And an added perk? “I don’t cook at home anymore,” she laughs as the servers refill our iced-tea glasses.