By Dennis Taylor
It was a family thing from the very beginning. Josue Chavarria was just 15 when he worked his very first shift at Toro Place Café, filling in as a dishwasher so big brother Hector could attend his high school prom.
That was the spring of 1988, and Chavarria has never worked anywhere else. He still sees “family” everywhere he looks.
“My main cook, Leticia Rubio, has run our kitchen for 25 years,” he said. “One of our servers, Brenda Cranford, has been here for 22. Kristine Shortes has worked for us for 14, and our newest, Rosie Nurnberger-Schulzski, has already been with us for five.”
Chavarria, the second-youngest of seven children, bought the place 22 years ago with life partner Bill Hinderscheid, who died in 2016.
Toro Place is the familiar Highway 68 landmark to anyone who commutes to and from Monterey and Salinas, with its evolving architecture based on ‘30s-era charm. For hard-core Toro Café customers, the place is all about warm welcomes and a sense of coming home.
“I’ve been coming here since the mid-‘60s, and it still has the same emotional, warm-and-fuzzy feeling for me, but it has become gentrified — and I say that in a nice way,” said Jim Reilly, who takes the short commute from his Spreckels’ home to Toro Café regularly.
Many of the regulars patronize the place daily — some twice a day — to feast on chili verde huevos rancheros, chile verde omelette, biscuits and gravy, the half-pound burger (topped with grilled onions and mushrooms) with cheese inside the patty, and other homemade specialties.
The milkshakes, made from scratch, are another favorite. And so are the light-and-fluffy pancakes. And the café’s enormous cinnamon rolls.
“We have a friend who visits every couple of years from Scotland, and the first thing she wants to do is go to Toro Café for pancakes,” said Reilly, who also serves as Spreckels’ unofficial town historian.
“In the early days, the clientele was very earthy, working class. A lot of Spreckels Sugar employees would come over when they got off their 8-to-4 shift. They’d shoot a few games of pool, have a few beers, and be home for dinner by 5:30 or 6.”
Gayle Adcock, now a Portland resident, remembers riding her bike to Toro Place Café from San Benancio Village at age 14, back when it was owned by Vic and Ida Schwaab.
“I remember it was a place where I wasn’t supposed to be — a little neighborhood dive, really,” she said. As the years passed, she played pool with her friend, Bonnie Seeber. “The losing team always had to buy beers, and everybody loved when I was on the opposite team, because I only drank Coca-Cola, which was cheaper,” she said.
The cafe sits on the Monterey-Salinas Highway, 6½ miles from the stoplight at Blanco Road in Salinas, on property that has been owned for 92 years by the family of 62-year-old Steve Colburn, who still lives next door.
“My grandfather, Julius Konstantine Horn, built the building in 1930,” said Colburn, who is Chavarria’s friend and landlord. He said the café’s rear dining room was once his grandparents’ bedroom, with French doors and glass enclosures.
“There’s still an opening behind that picture,” Colburn said, pointing to décor hanging from the dining room’s north wall. “Whenever my grandfather heard a noise at night, he could roll out of bed and look through that space to see if anybody had broken into his business.”
Julius, known as J.K., and Leonia Horn started the original business as a mom-and-pop filling station named Sycamore Park Service. They ran the station with family members, selling candy, ice cream and other convenience items from the front room, where the cash register sat.
Since 1943, the business has been known as Lila and Dave’s, Coolidges, Vic and Ida’s, Wilkersons’ Toro, McAdams’ Place, Toro Place and Dodie’s Place. The joint has been Toro Place Café since 1986.
“After my grandparents retired in the mid-‘50s, my mother (Lorna Colburn) decided she wanted nothing more to do with the business, so my parents leased it,” Colburn said.
Recalling the days when it was known as McAdams’ Place, Linda Millerick said owner Vi McAdams did everything herself. “She used to run back and forth, pumping gas for customers while she was cooking in the kitchen,” said Millerick, who is still a café regular as she approaches her 80th birthday. She said she’s dined there through the years with her children, grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
“When I was a kid, the traffic on this highway used to back up all the way to that first light in Salinas,” said Colburn. “Sometimes the cars wouldn’t move for 30 minutes at a time, and my parents would sit outside and wave at the people in the traffic jam. And folks would get out of their cars, come into the restaurant, order a burger and take it back to the car while they waited to get moving again.”
In 1988, faced with a $100,000 price tag to retrofit the gas tanks and pumps, the Colburns closed the gas station, but kept the café.
Various owners remodeled and changed décor. Long-timers remember when the stucco walls in the back dining room were covered with car-themed wallpaper and wood paneling.
Colburn recalls his mother’s outrage when new tenants, Shannon and Bud Keith, covered his grandfather’s brick fireplace with a faux replica.
The Keiths also stirred local controversy when they replaced the café’s beloved bull’s head, carved by famed “Itsyville” artist Steve Blanchard, with a stuffed Bullwinkle. Itsyville was located next door, and Blanchard also lived on the property. The false fireplace is still in place, but Bullwinkle is gone and Blanchard’s bull is back.
When Chavarria’s former boss, Barbara Hayes, decided to retire, she sold the business to the former dishwasher and Hinderscheid.
“I felt nervous buying the business because Bill and I were going to be working together, and I knew there would be times when we’d clash,” Chavarria said. “I was concerned about damaging our relationship, but we managed.” He said he left most of the business tasks to Hinderscheid, while he focused on management and physical work.
Chavarria, who has an eye for design, changed some of the décor. He ripped out a dirty carpet and scrubbed the interior, and modernized the bathrooms. And he upgraded the quality of the food.
Chavarria said he grew up with a strong work ethic that he credits to his father, Guadalupe. His father was a career field worker who immigrated to Monterey County from Mexico, while his mother, Evangelina, raised Josue and his six siblings.
“I pretty much learned to cook from my mom, and also from Elisa Garcia, who was my sister Mary’s mother-in-law,” he said. Garcia ran a kitchen and cafeteria at a boarding place for farmworkers in Gonzales, and as a boy, Chavarria would help out.
From the fifth grade forward, Josue attended Lincoln Elementary and Washington Junior High schools. He graduated from Salinas High.
He was employed at Toro Place Café by the time he was a 10th-grader, and never stopped loving the work. He does admit that his stress level skyrocketed when the pandemic brought shelter-in-place. He closed the restaurant for a month, then reopened for takeout only, until the restrictions were lifted.
“The pandemic was tough, but we managed,” he said. “We were very fortunate to have clientele that supported us through the hard times, stopping by for takeout meals.”
Added Colburn: “The regulars were extremely supportive. Their tips were often as much as the bill. Josue’s customers really took care of his workers.”
His regulars — the Toro Place family — make the business thrive, said Chavarria. The staff is loyal and familiar. They are as much a part of the color as anything else in the place.
He also said that, despite the traffic on Highway 68 during events like Monterey Car Week and racing at Laguna Seca, few of the passing motorists stop to eat.
“Special events really don’t impact us very much,” he said. “In fact, they often slow our business down a bit, because our regulars assume we’re going to be busy and stay away.”
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