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Adam Bernstein, Sapphire’s craftsman behind the bar, sees an empty glass as a canvas to be filled 

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

The hospitality business is a notoriously transient one. People enter and exit the profession rapidly and, even if they stay in the profession for a long time, they tend to move from place to place.  

In both regards, Adam Bernstein, the bartender at Sapphire Laguna, is an anomaly. He has worked in the hospitality business virtually his entire life. For 17 years he has tended bar in Laguna Beach; the first seven of those years he was at the old Partner’s Bistro and for the last eight he has been at Sapphire. There was a brief stint at The Rooftop in between the others, but obviously when Bernstein finds a place he likes, he stays put.

Learning from some of the best

“I don’t like moving around,” he says. Plus it’s easy to stay around when you hold the people you work for in high regard. He remembers working with Rick Sadlier of Partner’s Bistro as “…one of the best opportunities I’ve ever had.” Bernstein says Sadlier had “cool, modern ideas” while admitting, with a grin, that he might not have had “the best bedside manner.” 

Now, under Chef Azmin Ghahreman, Bernstein has found another great fit. “That gentleman,” says Bernstein, “is a mentor. I owe him a ton of respect and love. What a great man. He has made me a full part of his family.” That feeling of family and community is very important to Bernstein.

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Adam Bernstein, bartender at Sapphire Laguna, on the “other side” of the bar

A “dual life” in two great towns

Bernstein came to southern California from Florida in 1997. “My friends and I, we were all skating and surfing,” he says. So, they followed one another to the action sports industry capital: Southern California. Bernstein landed in San Clemente and he’s still there today.  

“I have a dual life,” he says. By this he means that while he’s a fixture in his hometown he’s equally a part of the fabric of his work town, too. “You create family and a sense of community. I feel that here. I love Laguna Beach,” he says emphatically.

A craftsman in an art community

For Bernstein, his work is multi-faceted. There is the actual skill of tending bar and all that entails in addition to his commitment to making every patron feel welcome. For him, both parts of the job are equally important.  

“We’re in an artists’ town. My expression of being creative is in the cocktail realm.”  As someone who attended culinary school, Bernstein takes the “mixology” part of his profession very seriously. He considers himself a craftsman and his “canvas” is an empty glass.

A cruise leads to a book

Just how seriously Bernstein takes his creations is evidenced by the book he’s creating about them. While working as a guest “mixologist” on a Crystal Cruise that went to Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil, (Ghahreman is currently partnering with the company), Bernstein says, “I was in the middle of the ocean and had time to think about things. I thought, ‘Adam, let’s put all of this in writing’. I figure even if it’s not successful I should do it just to say I did it. To do a book, to share my creativity with everyone else…there’s no downside to that.”  

Striving to make everyone feel “hugged”

The other side to Bernstein’s job is the part that’s harder to measure, and you certainly can’t make a recipe book about it. “When I’m behind the bar I like to get to know a person. (Laguna) is a place that’s a destination for world travelers…people can go to Newport Beach; they can go to Laguna Beach. You are attracted to what hugs you,” he explains.  

The fact that Bernstein says things like this isn’t surprising. He’s in the hospitality business, after all. What does surprise me is the sincerity with which he says it. When he says he wants you to feel hugged, he really means it. This attitude, combined with his bartending skills, helps explain his longevity in the industry. “It’s important not only knowing recipes, but knowing people,” he says.

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A collection of Bernstein’s handcrafted syrups – a source of great pride

A true professional

Another thing that helps explain his longevity is his commitment to his future. “I was smart about it. I started an IRA. I have a 401k. I’ve had my health insurance forever. I say work smart, not hard. I’ve taken it to the professional level.” He also credits Bobby Doerr, now an owner of The Saloon in town, with getting him on the right track. “To this day when I see him I always say ‘thank you’ and he knows exactly what I’m talking about!” Bernstein says.

And while he’s not thinking about leaving his post behind the bar anytime soon, he is always thinking about the future. “I’m a Virgo through and through. I’m all about being stable.” For Bernstein that’s just one more great thing about working at Sapphire with Ghahreman: Ghahreman has established quite an empire; there are many different directions to go if Bernstein should one day decide to hang up his cocktail shaker. “He thinks globally,” says Bernstein about Ghahreman.

Challenging himself to continue creating

Coming up is another Crystal Cruise to the Caribbean. “I think I will have an opportunity like this every year,” he says excitedly. Such exposure is not only personally fulfilling, but helps expose Bernstein to different cultures and food that he can translate into his craft. “I feel a lot more challenged to be creative. That is the change I’ve seen in myself. It has upped my ante. I’ve come a long way. I’m constantly creating new things all the time.”

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When he’s not behind the bar, look for Adam Bernstein in the water

Being a good guy has paid off

So while he puts in five nights a week, works on his book and readies himself for his next exotic voyage, Bernstein makes sure to make time to enjoy things close to home. “I’m a surfer. I surf every day. The water calms me. How can you not look around and think you’re in paradise?” he asks. And it’s true. We are sitting at The Rooftop on a picture-perfect, extremely warm November morning staring at the intensely blue Pacific.  It certainly looks like paradise.  

Determined to appreciate his surroundings, Bernstein is also committed to living by a creed that he feels has worked quite well for him thus far. “I do the best I can every single night.” He then holds his hands apart as if bracketing two very important ideas.  “For me, Adam Bernstein…good guy. Living that has gotten me a long way.” 


Viking with a Santa Claus heart: Look for silversmith Greg Thorne near the waterwheel at the Sawdust

Story by LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Photos by MARY HURLBUT except as noted

If Santa Claus were a Viking, I believe he’d look just like silversmith Greg Thorne: tall, solid and tawny, with long brown hair, his goatee and sideburns framing a square face most notable for (please forgive the cliché, it’s just so apt) his twinkling eyes and quick smile. 

The sword in the scabbard, brown kilt and leather sandals add the necessary northern nuance to his imposing figure. 

Instead of red, though, Greg wears dark earth shades on the day I meet him, as befits a man who believes that our connection to the land is the source of all things good, and who is deeply committed to the values of hard work and community learned during time spent with the Navajo and Hopi back in the early seventies.

“In those days, I lived in Flagstaff, and I worked as a shell runner delivering shells in gunnery sacks from the ships that docked in San Pedro to the Pueblo of Santa Domingo in Arizona, also brought them rocks from the mines for their turquoise jewelry,” he says. 

Greg’s Norwegian and Scottish ancestry is a vital element in his life

“I was a large white man, representing everything the Navajo could have resented, but they embraced me,” Greg adds. “I was entranced by their sense of community, their ceremonials, their celebration of the ‘great mystery’ of life, of the wind and water spirits, the animals, the sense that we are all relatives, that there was no religious dogma they felt the need to impose, just acceptance.”

Nor do the comparisons with Santa end with Greg’s magnetic presence and (here we go again, I can’t help it, a thesaurus only goes so far) twinkly demeanor. Not only can you find him in a magical place – in his case, the Sawdust Festival – where his tucked-away hut near the waterwheel is shiny with potential gifts of gorgeous handmade jewelry, but he also has a Santa Claus heart, giving away “penny wishes” to small children who happen past, and books – real, honest-to-goodness printed books – to older kids.

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Kids are drawn to Greg, and he loves to give them pennies to toss for wishes

“I go to the library to buy up books they’re about to discard, from classics to history books and more,” he says. “Then I try to match them with the kids I meet, see what will resonate with them.”

For Greg, a former history teacher, this is not an endeavor taken lightly.

“I remember reading Chaucer and realizing maybe for the first time how universal human emotions and drives are over time and place, how we are all the same at heart,” he says. 

“Literature and education break down walls and that’s really important especially right now. I love the way the musical Hamilton is teaching a new generation about history, in their language and style.”

Greg’s personal favorites include Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the latter perhaps a nod to his Scottish ancestors who lived in Argyll, where many Vikings settled. 

The past is prologue to the future

Greg’s past informs much of who he is now: the pioneer force is strong within him.

“My grandfather was born in 1898. He was in the Royal Horse Artillery during World War I. He came out here and owned a huge cattle ranch in Arizona, he was truly an old cowboy, he knew Wyatt Earp, he was an immigrant of course – we should celebrate all immigrants, because that’s what America is, it’s the great world experiment,” Greg says. 

He spent his childhood and teenage years roaming Irvine Ranch, “hunting and trapping, fishing, leading a free-range life, raising hawks, owls and falcons” he says, “and then I had a great time in the sixties surfing, enjoying the hippie chicks, playing rock ‘n roll.” 

Greg and his buddies were some of the first protestors to fight developers, disabling tractors and earthmoving equipment, and he still believes in protests to save our lands from short-term profiteers “like the situation in Standing Rock,” he says.

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Submitted photo

 

After a 50-year break, Greg’s back to performing in a rock ‘n roll band

And now, after a 50-year hiatus, Greg is singing and playing guitar again, most recently at Angel Stadium at an event to raise money for kids with Down Syndrome, performing with a band so recently created, it doesn’t have a name. 

“Loved it,” he says. “We’re planning to do lots more shows.”

Greg’s philanthropic activities are so fascinating that I barely had time to ask about his jewelry, though while I interviewed him, his beautifully crammed booth was clearly a major attraction for Sawdust attendees. 

I asked about his inspiration, because that’s the kind of question reporters feel obliged to ask of creative people – though it is often one of the hardest to answer, given the capricious nature of muses.

Greg says that he responds emotionally to the rough stones. “I sense that some want to feel part of a family around a hearth,” he says, pointing out stones of more-or-less the same size in a cluster on a bracelet, “while others, like this one” – he shows me a magnificent necklace with a dominant stone – “need to be the center of attention.”

Just like people. 

He’s practical too. “Plus of course I like to create pieces that women like,” he adds.

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Greg’s talent and attention to detail is obvious in his booth display

Greg’s ties to the past are evident in his present. Many of his tools are Navajo-made, crafted from old horseshoes and files. He owns an old English hammer inscribed “Thor” (one does wonder at the coincidence of his last name, Thorne) as well as, of all things, Aaron Burr’s family iced tea server. This disconnect is interesting, the extraordinary and rare shelved alongside the quotidian, rather like life itself. 

Or perhaps it is simply that Greg collects antiques.

I left the Sawdust and visited his Facebook page to see if I could learn more about him. There I learned that recently he had had “a Bonaparte kind of day.” How many times have you seen that on a status update?

Along with a love of European history, Greg has embraced Native American culture, appreciating their continued deep connection with nature – with the animal, vegetable and mineral fruit of the land – and thereby with history dating back to humanity’s genesis in Africa.

Thus it is that when you buy Greg’s jewelry, you’re buying more than silver and turquoise born of the land and shaped with love by human hands: you’re buying a philosophy honed over time.

And if you’re a kid, and prefer books, well, there’s that Santa thing he’s got going.


KATRINA MARTINO: Making things happen in and out of the salon – a true turn-around artist

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Katrina Martino, owner of Hudson Salon and Spa in Laguna Beach, still makes sure she “gets behind the chair” one or two days a week. As a successful salon owner, Martino says she has a knack for putting “a twist on things.” 

However she twists it, it must be the right way as she has been able to take two failing salons and turn them around.  

An entrepreneurial spirit

A true entrepreneur at heart, Martino has set her sights on another turn, Spa by Hudson, a spa concierge company that provides spa services to hotels that do not have spas on their property. Currently offering spa services in Laguna Beach, Charlotte, and soon in Savannah, Georgia, Martino is clearly someone who can’t sit still. This is true away from business as well. Despite such a busy work schedule, she still makes time to help others in really significant ways.

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Katrina Martino, owner of Hudson Salon and Spa and Spa by Hudson

Successfully turning around two salons

When Martino took ownership of her first salon, Salon Pompeii in Mission Viejo, it was 1998. When she visited the salon the first time, she says, “I was in three weeks later, essentially I took it over.” 

In May 2011 she took over Hudson Salon and Spa in Laguna Beach. With Hudson Salon and Spa she had again acted quickly. Seeing an advertisement on Craigslist, Martino called right away. “The owner wanted out,” she explains. After the original buyers offer fell through, “I went to see it the next day then went to see the landlord.” Just like that she was in business – again.

For five years she ran both businesses, and both businesses needed her expertise. 

Making room for a new venture

In August of this year, Martino sold Salon Pompeii. “It took time to find the right owner,” she says. “I didn’t want any of the staff to be displaced. Everyone’s still there. I go in about once a month.” Martino was motivated to sell her business of almost 20 years because she wanted to pursue Spa by Hudson. “I wanted to free myself up,” she explains. 

Five years ago she started working with four-star hotels in Laguna offering in-room spa services. It’s a win-win for the hotel because, as Martino explains, “We offer additional amenities. And everything is about the reviews.”

A southern expansion that includes potentially haunted hotels

In September, Martino partnered with a co-worker in South Carolina. “The market there is ten times what it is here,” explains Martino. “The hotels there, so many of them were built in the 1800s and1900s. They don’t have room for spas.” 

The way it works is Martino’s staff is on call part time. The guests are charged for their services through the hotel. 

“I work best when I’m creating something. It’s super exciting to watch its growth. And I love no overhead,” she says with a laugh. 

Next up is Savannah. “They have the same kind of historic hotels. A lot of them are said to be haunted. I’m looking forward to feeling the vibe,” she says enthusiastically.

Working both sides of the chair is a plus

While Martino may have shed one business with significant overhead, she still has another with Hudson Salon and Spa. She credits her understanding of the business as part of the reason she has been so successful. “Being a stylist, I know both sides of the industry. Stylists are a creative group,” she says with a smile. “It helps to be passionate and understand the many sides of it.”

Finding time for The Peace Exchange

Clearly passionate about her businesses, Martino is equally passionate about helping others. As a single mother with multiple businesses to manage, it’s hard to believe she has the time to give, but somehow she does. She is a board member of The Peace Exchange. 

According to Martino, “The Peace Exchange works with marginalized regions of the world to create social enterprise, economic growth, sustainability, and entrepreneurial training for citizens of developing nations.”  

Martino says she got involved through the founder, Katie Bond, who is a friend. “I’ve help put together fundraisers,” she says lightly when pressed about what she does for the group. As with many altruistic people, she really doesn’t want to talk about her contributions, much preferring to talk about the group’s mission. (Visit www.thepeaceexchange.com for more information.)

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Katrina Martino in downtown Laguna Beach, taking a rare break

Doing what she could for a friend in desperate need

A very high profile charitable endeavor Martino started was for her former employee and friend, Sandra Woodard. Woodard was diagnosed with a very rare form of ovarian cancer in April 2016. Martino jumped in and started a GoFundMe campaign to help Woodard, a single mother of twin girls who attend Thurston Middle School, with medical bills. Woodard’s diagnosis was very grim, but she was committed to fight her disease. Martino launched the GoFundMe campaign to help Woodard pay for treatment in Germany. 

“I know a lot of people,” says Martino. “I like connecting people. What a community Laguna is. People who share…what a blessing! They gave her hope to fight.”  

While Woodard tragically passed away on October 19, Martino strongly believes that while Woodard did not find the cure she was hoping for the donations did give her five more months with her children as well as some more time to come to terms with things. “She was more accepting of her situation,” says Martino.

A community steps up and continues to help

The campaign is ongoing. Donations are now being accepted to help Woodard’s daughters. Martino is grateful to StuNews for being so supportive of the campaign for Woodard. It has paid off. 

“Sue and Bill Gross walked in with a $15,000 check to help Sandra after reading about it in StuNews,” she says, still marveling at the memory. The Grosses didn’t stop there, recently giving even more for Woodard’s children. They are not the only ones.

“So many people in Laguna believe in paying it forward,” says Martino.

Like mother, like daughter

A willing community is only half the story. People need someone to start the proverbial ball rolling. Martino is that kind of person. It takes a lot of energy, which Martino seems to have in endless supply, to make things happen. This energy is amplified when the subject turns to her 22-year-old daughter. The two have been working together lately, something Martino clearly relishes. Her daughter has been helping Martino with her website. 

“It’s the millennial teaching…whatever I am!” laughs Martino. “She’s entrepreneurial, a super dynamic individual.” 

Of course, she’s talking about her daughter, but Martino could just as easily be describing herself.


Santa’s mantra: It’s all about kids and their dreams at this most wonderful time of the year

Story by LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Last week, Ken Schreiber and I talked on the phone and arranged to meet at a coffee place downtown for our interview, but I forgot to suggest a way to make sure that we recognized each other.

Luckily Laguna’s Santa Claus was easy to spot, even without a sleigh or elves or jingle bells anywhere in sight. Ken’s full white beard and luxuriant white hair, kindly blue eyes, and red T-shirt hugging his comfortable girth made it clear: I was in the presence of the authentic Santa. 

I sat down and asked for a house with an ocean view for Christmas, and mentioned a few other things on my list. (Not really, but the urge was hard to resist.)

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Santa (Ken Schreiber) loves to see the excitement and wonder on kids’ faces

“Sometimes I’ll be in a store, like Costco, without my suit and hat, but I’ll see a kid look at me and give their mom a nudge,” he says. “I just wink.”

Ken clearly revels in the opportunity that his role gives him to bring joy and happiness to the children who visit him with their dreams and hopes. 

“They are so excited, so full of wonder,” he says. “I see their minds turning over and over as they tell me their wishes. It’s all about the kids this time of year. I love it.”

Ken adds that almost entirely without exception, the kids are great (though he was once briefly scolded for spilling milk). Parents, on the other hand, can very occasionally be a problem. Santa does not like it when moms and dads are impatient. 

“Let the kids talk, let them take their time,” he urges. “They’re dreaming, they’re imagining, they’re making lists in their heads. Don’t cut them off.”

Hooked on giving

Ken and his family became hooked on the rewards of giving long before Ken took classes in the nineties at USC to learn the art of being Santa Claus. Back in Chicago, in the eighties, he and his wife and kids had volunteered for years with a group that gave away Happy Meals and other goodies to kids challenged by difficult circumstances. Thus becoming Santa Claus seemed a natural sequel once Ken had more time to devote to his new vocation.

“One of my happiest memories is the day I was given the chance to fulfill the dream of a child through the Make-A-Wish program,” he says, his voice a little shaky with emotion. 

“All that a seriously ill young lad, he was maybe six years old, wanted was a chance to light a Christmas tree. I rode with him in a horse and carriage and gave him a container of fairy dust, confetti. We arrived at a huge tree that was part of the parade. He took a handful of the dust and we counted slowly: One. Two. Three. Then he tossed the dust toward the tree and it exploded with light.” Ken shakes his head in wonder recalling that moment. “The kid’s eyes were like saucers. It was a gift to me, to see his happiness at something simple yet amazing to him.” 

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Santa Claus stands at the door of his home away from home

Ken is a member of Real Bearded Santas, a group of honest-to-goodness bearded men who meet regularly to share their experiences. 

“I believe it started when a company hired a bunch of Santas for a commercial they were making,” he says. “The Santas found they had a lot in common and decided to form the group.”

I asked if Santas were competitive. Ken doesn’t believe so, instead emphasizes that the ones he knows help each other, but clearly he does take pleasure, as he should, for being selected in the past to be Santa at South Coast Plaza, which some believe to be the Super Bowl of Santa-dom. 

Fortunately for Laguna, Ken’s current position at the Sawdust Art Festival and Hospitality Night keep him busy here in his hometown.

Ken recalls the magic of his own childhood Christmas mornings, and the care his father took to create the most wondrous of Christmas trees.

“My dad would get three trees and then cut them apart to create a single amazing tree covered with tinsel and decorations,” Ken recalls. “That was his pride and joy. We would wake up to see his creation and our gifts would be there, once a train set with the train going around and around the tree, once an entire toy ranch with cows and everything.”

But Ken does not like to talk about himself – not his successful career in the printing industry, not his love of swimming as exercise (“I don’t like to sweat”), not even his deep affection for Laguna Beach. 

“It’s all about the kids,” he reminds me. “That’s why I do this. That’s all that matters to me, their joy.”

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Selfie with an elfie: Christmas brings out the kid in all of us

Spoiler Alert: Santa’s secrets

We’ve all heard of Secret Santas, but how many of us know Santa’s secrets? Ken agreed to tell me a few little-known facts about life as Santa. 

One is this: to figure out what kids might like for Christmas, he asks what they chose to wear for Halloween. “If they were a character from Frozen, or Jungle Book, that gives me a great clue for our conversation,” he says.

Then there’s this: many, if not most, of the Real Bearded Santas pay a visit to a salon in the weeks before Christmas to achieve just the right shade of white for their hair and beard. “It’s a three-hour procedure for me,” Ken says. “But it’s part of the fun, and I often see my Santa colleagues there under the dryers.”

Another secret that’s maybe not so secret: Santa doesn’t actually need a chimney to deliver gifts.

“When kids ask me about coming down the chimney, though they don’t much these days, I just ask them: did I visit your house last year?” he says. “Almost always they say yes, and I say, see, it’s magic – I don’t need a chimney. And they’re fine with hearing that.”

And if a child says, “No, you didn’t come last year,” Ken makes sure to let an elf know to check whether the family is too poor to afford Christmas presents. Then Santa Ken can help make gifts happen through one of the nonprofits that specialize in such things, such as Toys for Tots. He is more than delighted to be able to help.

Finally, I wanted to know why Ken thought Christmas was so very magical, for kids and often adults too. He thought for a while. 

“Because,” he said, “we all want to feel special, to be loved, to be noticed. To feel that we matter. Santa helps kids to feel important no matter what else is going on in their lives. When they talk to Santa, they’re the star of the show. And Christmas brings out the kid in all of us.”

So true.

I said goodbye, drove home, and hung up my stocking.


John Shanahan: 2016 was a good year for the new LBHS head football coach – and for his great team

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

LBHS football coach John Shanahan may be relatively new to Laguna Beach, but he’s definitely not new to football. The Foothill High School graduate says he ended up living in Laguna after being introduced to the woman who would become his wife. As Shanahan tells it, a mom of a kid he coached set the two of them up. It was a successful match as Shanahan happily explains, “I’ve been with her ever since.”  

At the time they met Shanahan was living in Corona del Mar. His future wife had just purchased a home in Laguna. While not initially eager to move to the more isolated Laguna, Shanahan says, “We decided to give it a try.  I just love it.”

Coaching football since he was a teenager

Shanahan’s coaching story, on the other hand, goes back 30 years (and, yes, Shanahan did start coaching as a teenager). “I would go to my practice and then when it was over I’d get on the other side of the line and help coach.” His first mentor was a coach named Tim O’Donaghue. Their bond continues today as O’Donaghue, who recently became a deacon in the Catholic Church, is the man who married Shanahan and his wife in Ireland earlier this year. 

LBHS Head Football Coach John Shanahan takes a break from post-season practice duties

With his playing days over, coaching became the focus

Shanahan loves football. This love compelled him to keep playing after graduating from Foothill. He suited up for Fullerton College. “I was tiny and slow so it ended pretty quickly,” he says good-naturedly. 

If his playing days were relatively short-lived, his coaching career was just getting started. From there, he says, “I spent five years at Tustin High School. Myron Miller (who recently returned as head coach there) is an incredible individual. I learned a lot from Myron. Those kids are great kids, great athletes.”

Unexpectedly finding himself in the football big leagues

From Tustin Shanahan went to J. Serra High School. “I had taken a break away from football to do some other things,” Shanahan explains. “Jim Hartigan (J. Serra’s head coach) was interested in some of the youth players I had coached. I wanted to get to know him before I recommended him to my players. This got us talking and eventually he was asking me, ‘Why don’t you coach football here?’”  

Rebuilding and finding success

J. Serra plays Division 1 football in the powerful Trinity League, called the second toughest high school football league in the United States by MaxPreps. They face opponents like Mater Dei and St. John Bosco, always nationally ranked teams.  Shanahan says he was intrigued because J. Serra’s football team had won just one game the year before. That the varsity program went on to win a league championship and finish second for several years while he was there as the freshman coach speaks to what a program can do when right people, in all areas of the program, are put in place.  

An LBHS parent makes the ask

With such success, it isn’t hard to understand why Shanahan wasn’t terribly interested when he heard that there was a head coaching position available this year at Laguna Beach High School. When Laguna football parent Jason Wenk asked to meet with Shanahan, “I thought it was because he wanted to talk about his son coming back to J. Serra. He asked me, ‘Are you interested in coaching at Laguna Beach?’ I told him, ‘I don’t know…it seems like a long way back.” 

Undaunted, Wenk convinced Shanahan to meet some of the kids, the LBHS Booster representative, and other people involved in the program. Apparently, Shanahan liked what he saw. “I really enjoy the building process. I enjoyed that at J. Serra,” he says. “It seemed like a great challenge.”  

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A successful team is a happy team and vice versa: the players are looking forward to 2017

Undertaking a “great challenge”

Calling it a “great challenge” is one way of looking at it. Shanahan was being asked to turn around a Division 13 program coming off a 2-8 season, with no local youth football program to pull from. “I talked to my wife. She said, ‘If it’s something you want to do go for it.’” So he did. 

“We got it going back in February and March and have been grinding ever since,” he says enthusiastically.  

No experience means no bad habits, at least

Ever the optimist, Shanahan says that while less than five percent of his players come to the LBHS program with any prior football experience, at least “they don’t have any bad habits we need to undo.” He coaches the kids like he coaches his junior clinics.

 “I get questions that are absolutely shocking,” he says laughing at some of his players’ inexperience. “We have really good football players, but they were really, really raw. I didn’t know if we could get it going this year, but we have incredible families, incredible kids, just incredible support.” He adds, “Our frosh-soph team went 8-1-1 this year after going 1-9 the year before. That’s probably the most rewarding piece of this whole year,” he says proudly.

Consistency is the key

The varsity program had a similar turn-around, making it all the way to the CIF semi-finals. It’s remarkable, really, that a 2-8 team one season can make it all the way to the CIF semi-finals the next year. Clearly, Shanahan is doing something right. He says it all starts with consistency. 

“I told the kids ‘We are going to come up with schemes and no matter what we’re not going to change.’ We got our butts kicked for four straight weeks. We had very heated conversations in the coach’s office. I said, ‘We are here for the long term. It’s bigger than one season’. It was difficult but it paid off.”

The game that turned it all around

Shanahan attributes a game against Godinez High School as the moment the tide began to turn in his favor. “We lost that game, but the kids believed in themselves.  They believed in the schemes. After that we went on a six game winning streak. They were all must-win games. They believed in themselves and they bought into the plan.”

Lacking size, but not talent

As the smallest public high school in Orange County, Laguna simply lacks the number of bodies that other schools can draw from for their sports teams. It’s also not known for producing particularly large kids. 

However, what the program lacks in numbers and physicality, according to Shanahan, it makes up for in athletic talent. It also helps to have an extremely dedicated group of supporters. That support is invaluable for a program that, according to Shanahan, is in “the most difficult place to win. You can’t follow a coach; Laguna is geographically isolated…there are inequities.” 

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LBHS football players learn the importance of the weight room in the offseason 

Inherent inequities that simply must be overcome

The “inequities” he is referring to are the private schools Laguna has to compete against. Whether Division 1 or Division 13, the private schools can recruit players from all over to play for their teams. Public schools cannot recruit, and are only able to pull from the student population within the school district. When you live in a town of just 25,000, the pool of players you’re pulling from is pretty small. Shanahan is not bothered. “We have to beat those teams. We have the talent to beat those teams. We could have beaten any team in Division 13 if we had played well,” he says.

Big plans for OC’s smallest public high school

In case you’re wondering what Shanahan’s goals are for the future of the LBHS football team, he’s thinking big. “Our goal is to be a top five program in the county…We’re on our way to getting there.” 

Shanahan believes the key to elevating the program is in the weight room. “We talked to the kids. We told them that you win games in the off-season.” 

Committed to bringing a youth football program to Laguna

Another thing Shanahan believes will help is a youth football program in the city, something he is committed to starting. “We are going to do everything we can to get a youth program if not in 2017 then 2018,” he says emphatically. 

Shanahan knows he is up against a powerful force working to keep kids away from football: concerned parents. “There’s a lot of moms who are concerned with the dangers of football,” Shanahan acknowledges. “It’s a very safe sport if coached the right way.” He says on the high school team this year, there were four or five concussions, though none of them “major.” Shanahan takes them seriously enough to say that if one of his players sustains two concussions in a season he’s done for that season. “It’s not worth it,” he says.

A great season begins with great kids

2016 has been “an amazing year,” according to Shanahan. He had a fantastic football season in his first outing as a head coach, and has felt the love of a grateful high school community. “We drew from the crowds. I felt it. The kids felt it. I’m grateful for everything the student body and all the supporters did to create such great energy at the games.”  He is also gratified by the effort of his players. “They’re great kids. Everybody should be proud of them. I’ve been coaching 30 years and I’ve never been around a better group.”  

2016 has been a very good year away from the field, as well

And yet all of this pales in comparison to two other events in Shanahan’s life that took place this year: marrying “the perfect wife” and finding out a new family member, a boy, will be joining Team Shanahan in April 2017. 

In case you’re worried this news might alter Shanahan’s coaching plans, perhaps his words about the future with his son will ease your mind: “I really look forward to the day when he’s five or six and running around the field with 100 uncles.” Now, he didn’t specifically mention it was going to be the LBHS field, but I took it as a given.


Kylie Spence: A talented girl with a vision and a plan 

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

She’s a girl beyond her years – an “old soul” her mother calls her. Kylie Spence is a shy, introspective 15-year-old who is also sympathetic to other people’s stories. All of this is channeled into her music.

Gifted with outstanding musical sensibility and a five-octave vocal range, Kylie has given voice to her feelings and those she intuits from other people, and written them into her own compositions. She’s been writing songs since she was 12 years old, and this spring she’ll be releasing her first EP of original music.

Kylie Spence

Kylie’s also fond of covers, adding her unique sound to classics such as her release of The Christmas Song (here it is on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dk8DRuCgEEY&feature=youtu.be), which is available for purchase on iTunes. Her interpretation of The Christmas Song is a goose-bump worthy rendition in which her remarkable voice is crystal clear alongside her own piano playing.

“I get to experiment more with the genre when it’s a cover song,” Kylie says. 

Don’t get the impression that everything musical comes easily to Kylie. She not only works hard – a half hour of vocal warm-ups and three hours of music practice daily, plus weekly trips to LA to study with her voice, piano, and guitar teacher – she additionally struggles with the challenge of her health.

Balancing body and mind

It first showed up when she was injured as a water polo player. Her spleen and ribs were bruised, but unbeknownst at the time, she also had mononucleosis. It could be that the injury caused the mono to further its damage to her immune system. 

She was 13 years old and spent all summer in bed. She kept getting sicker and sicker, and eventually was diagnosed with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS). Kylie’s mom, Tracie, tells me that one out of 100 kids may get that from the mono virus. POTS is a disorder that affects the flow of blood through the body, thereby causing dizziness with postural changes – even by simply standing up quickly, plus debilitating fatigue, and irregular heart palpitations. What it means for Kylie is that she continues to have very low blood pressure and often experiences tachycardia heart symptoms. It has also meant that the regular school day is nearly impossible. 

Shortly after beginning her freshman year at LBHS, blood tests confirmed she was not getting better, despite medical treatment. She continued to experience tachycardia, and her blood circulation was such that her face was completely pale.

“One kid told me I looked like death,” Kylie said. “That hurt.”

She has since found a happy alternative: the public alternative school, Pacific Coast High School, where most classes are online. With the exception of the science lab and Spanish language class at the physical campus located in Tustin, Kylie is able to manage her physical challenges by being at home and working on the computer.

I met with Kylie and Tracie Spence on a sunny afternoon over coffee. I had wondered how a 15-year-old would be able to get away from school in mid-week, but now it made sense. Kylie explained that the online school meets her two most important goals. “It’s been great for my music and my health,” she said.

Becoming who you want to be

Philosophically, she sees life in terms of what gifts she’s been given and how grateful she is, saying, “It seems like it all happens for a reason.”

 

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She finds inspiration in everything around her

The school program has allowed her to pace herself according to her ability, but the downside is that it’s also meant a retreat from friendships she once enjoyed in middle school. Still, Kylie chooses to see the bright side. 

“I’m a tough kid. I pretend I don’t have it [POTS],” she says. “I find inspiration for my music in everything… I lost friends, and I wrote about that.”

Her mom shared that it has been really difficult socially. 

“She has an innate empathy; an ability to write and understand what people are going through.” said Tracie. “But it’s been hard for her.”

With the alternative school regimen, with adjusted medication and physical therapies, and with a total change in diet, Kylie is working her way through, improving every day. There’s a good chance that POTS will be something she will outgrow as an adult. She has the will and the plan: to travel and perform coffee shop gigs all over the U.S.

Working at “amazing”

Kylie’s headphones may be filled with her favorite bands – Coldplay, Of Monsters and Men, Zella Day, and Daughter – but her musical style is uniquely her own. Her genre would be best described as fitting into Indy/Alternative, and she reaches emotional depth with her interpretive voice.

 

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The music room with sounds and images of inspiration for Kylie

This spring will mark the release of the very first Kylie Spence EP. For months, she’s been demo’ing and working with producer Mark Portman (who also produces Selena Gomez), and is hoping to include five original songs on the EP. 

 “I want to take it slow and do things right,” she says. “I want to put something out that’s amazing.”

Second Voice

Ever sensitive to what she has to offer people, Kylie plans to reach a broad audience. “I want to inspire people,” she says. “I want to be playing to a lot of people. I want them to have something to take away.”

Her gift is in reaching people with her beautiful voice, even if she’s sometimes too shy to do that in person. She’s not the party girl. She’s the sensitive, mature-beyond-her-years kind of girl. 

“She relates more to adults,” says her mom. To which Kylie adds, “I like having deep conversations, not superficial.”

She may be shy in person, but performing lights her spark. Kylie has played for three years at San Clemente’s annual Carnival Colossal, and locally at JoAnn Artman Gallery during Art Walk, at Mozambique, and downtown at The Grove on Hospitality Night. “I made $270 in tips!” she said, smiling. “That was so cool!” 

Her mom couldn’t be more proud. “Me and my husband love to see her perform in front of hundreds of people,” Tracie says. “Because she’s not an outgoing person.”

Performing is a form of self-expression that Kylie can relate to.

“I like to perform,” she says. “At first I was scared I’d mess up. I’m growing now, making mistakes, but I enjoy it! 

 “Singing is like my second voice.”

Substance, style, and the support group

There are a lot of people who recognize talent when they see it. With the support of her family – mom, dad, and younger sister, Jaden – along with many local music talents such as sound engineer Nic Rodriguez, and guitar teacher Tommy Benson, plus the LA-based producer, and her music and vocal coach, Ron Anderson, Kylie’s on a solid path to success.

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Kylie’s music is coming together on every level – emotionally and professionally. “It’s like a snowball,” she says. “I’m starting to see that happen.”

“She’s got this amazing group supporting her,” said Tracie. 

“They totally believe in her.”

Kylie can see the progress she’s made even at such a young age, and she appreciates all who have accompanied her on that journey.

“Having people work with me and believe in me, that’s been amazing,” says Kylie. “Most people don’t believe I’m 15. My writing has matured. Everything about me has too!”

Mature, yes, even an old soul. Kylie will still have many years of inspiration to draw upon in her life and we look forward her many music albums to come. Debuting a professional quality EP before she even has a driver’s license? Pretty cool.



Going with the flow: Rene Miller loves her coffee but most of all her coffee-drinking customers

Story by LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

The perfect coffee drink means different things to different people, and that’s what keeps Laguna Coffee Company manager Rene Miller intrigued by the industry that she’s been a part of for 15 years, and loved for much longer. She’s fascinated by the almost infinite variety of possible coffee drinks and has memorized 500 versions.

There are the coffee beans themselves, of course, to take into account, but also temperature, strength, different flavors, and size of the serving, to mention just a few elements, and now, increasingly, various types of milk – not only whether it is steamed, nonfat or half-and-half or foamy or frothy, but also its origin.

Rene Miller, manager of Laguna Coffee Company, loves her customers

“There’s almond and soy, and now coconut and rice milk, and other more unusual ingredients,” she tells me. “My current favorite drink is the bullet-proof, a 12 oz. Americano with organic ghee butter and organic coconut oil. It’s especially great for those who are lactose-intolerant.”

This description blows my mind and confounds my taste buds. (It still does, three days after the interview. Clarified butter in coffee? And coconut? But Rene’s love of the drink is quite obvious.) 

I have to say that the complexity of the coffee drinks that some customers order astounds me, the way the words trip off their tongues like an entirely different language. I love coffee, but my order is usually quite simple: “Regular coffee with room at the top for cream.” I still don’t really understand why tall means small.

This Rene understands. “You’re not the only one,” she reassures me. “I make sure that our baristas clarify exactly what the customer wants. Customer service is vital to our success. Having answers is one thing. Asking the right questions is what’s most important.”

When the tourist season hits, it is important to understand phrases like “I’ll have a flat white” or “a long black,” Miller says, which in Australia and New Zealand mean, respectively, an espresso with steamed milk and an Americano, terms that have nothing to do with steamrollers or skin color.

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Two Laguna icons in one shot: Laguna Coffee Company manager Rene Miller and the Greeter, a frequent customer

But it is the coffee drinkers that most fascinate Rene. 

“During the winter, almost 80 percent of my customers are locals,” she says. “After seven years here, I know many of them on a personal level and quite a few I see nearly every day. I feel privileged to be in some ways a part of their lives and to be able to help cheer them up, or celebrate with them or sometimes sympathize when they come in. I hear about tragedies and blessings, from suicide to weddings and births. 

“It’s like a microcosm of the world in here. I’ve learned that there’s nothing that can’t happen to anybody, no matter what their circumstances,” she adds.

A gathering place for all ages, for loners and for the gregarious

Microcosm is the word for this coffee shop, but in the best way possible: Laguna Coffee Company’s small interior space and warm ambience (there are tables on the patio too) encourage conversation and interaction among customers, who run the gamut in age. 

Nor is this is a sterile environment dominated by millennials gazing blankly at the walls while they listen to headphones and tap on keyboards – though they are welcome to do so, and (if they so desire), will find themselves left to their own devices (literally).

People read; talk; network; or simply meditate over their coffee: it’s that kind of place, very laissez faire. No one is hassled and no one looks lonely.

Significant connections do happen. “I’ve witnessed a number of conversations that began between strangers and resulted in long-term relationships,” Miller says. “It’s really satisfying. So much laughter happens here every day.”

The success of Laguna Coffee Company is easy to understand as I watch people wander in and chat to Rene and each other. Often they order their “usual,” occasionally along with a tasty addition such as Laguna Coffee’s celebrated carrot cake. 

When she was young, Rene fantasized about becoming a lawyer, attracted to the idea of coming to the defense of people who needed help. However, her life took a different path when she married and had children, three daughters, and her desire to be a comfort to others is still evident in her caring attitude toward her longtime customers.

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Laguna Coffee is unique locally in roasting coffee beans onsite

Laguna Coffee Company, located at 1050 S. Coast Hwy, is unique in the area for roasting its own coffee beans, which happens at least twice a week. 

“People follow the scent trail all the way here, I’m told,” Rene says. “It smells like toast.” 

The man in charge of the process, Randy Warner, the owner’s brother-in-law, roasts as many as 10 varietals at the same time. It’s quite the ritual, reminding me of feeding time at the zoo as people cluster around the machine to watch the process and ask Randy for his roasting tips, willingly given.

Laguna Coffee also serves wine and beer, which is quite unusual for a coffee bar.

“Most customers don’t even realize that we do,” Rene says. She picks up ideas on her trips, and recalls a coffee place in Austin, Texas, that serves tequila with coffee first thing in the morning. “I don’t offer that, not yet, anyway,” she says.

When she’s not working, Rene enjoys biking, often with her daughters, recently completing a Centurion cycling ride (100 miles in a day) in aid of the homeless. She’s interested in writing and is currently taking a course at the Susi Q, thinking she might write a memoir one day about “life on the other side of the bar.”

Life on “the other side of the bar” is rich for Rene

I asked what people are most surprised to find out about her. Frequent customer Mike overheard and said, “That she has eight grandchildren” – to which Rene agreed. And I understand why: with her brown hair tied back in a ponytail, and wearing an off-the-shoulder T-shirt and skinny jeans, Rene looks much too young to be a matriarch.

She’s very supportive of Laguna’s small businesses and also the town’s artists. Every six weeks, Laguna Coffee changes the artwork on the walls. Local artists benefit from the exposure. During my visit, I admired wonderful one-of-a-kind coffee cups as well as items sold by the Peace Exchange. 

Most impressive was an artistic exhibit of framed butterflies and moths, creatures close to Rene’s heart (and tattooed on her ankle). 

“I love the way a caterpillar turns into something so beautiful,” she says. “The possibility is in us all, isn’t it, to turn into something wonderful, even if at times we’re in a cocoon of our own making and can’t see our way out. You just have to persevere.”

I didn’t delve into the details of Rene Miller’s life – interviews have their limits, I feel – but I sensed that her empathy with others comes from challenges she herself has encountered. Her kindness is palpable, and it is clear that her warm personality draws people to the Laguna Coffee Company just as surely as the alluring smell of roasting beans leads them to her door.


JORDAN VILLWOCK plans for Laguna’s emergencies

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Jordan Villwock, Laguna Beach’s Emergency Operations Coordinator, has been with the Laguna Beach police since he joined at age 16 as a police explorer. Thinking initially that he wanted to be a police officer, Villwock eventually changed his mind, deciding civilian life was more suitable for him. 

However, his clarity regarding what he did not want didn’t necessarily translate into a defined picture of what he did want. So he decided to keep his career options open.

A Police Explorer finds a career

“As a police explorer one of the things they had me training in was dispatch. My whole long-term process was that I would do this while I attended college. I was able to get hired full-time in 2004. I worked the graveyard shift during the weekend and went to school during the week,” Villwock says. 

He decided to pursue a Master’s Degree in Emergency Service Administration. He says he originally chose that field because “It’s kind of broad; it covers all the bases.” 

Filling a brand new role

Eventually, Villwock was promoted to senior supervisor at the Laguna Beach Police Department for his dispatch work. Then, in December 2015, he moved into his current job, a position that had not existed until he filled it. 

“My job was the collateral duty of another person, either a detective or a sergeant,” explains Villwock of his responsibilities. Hearing the many critical roles Villwock is responsible for, it’s hard to imagine his job being part of another. It also makes his choice of study exceptionally prescient.

Jordan Villwock, Emergency Operations Coordinator for Laguna Beach

Teaching residents how to take care of themselves through CERT

One of Villwock’s responsibilities is running the city’s CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) program, a group he started for the city in 2011. To listen to Villwock describe the classes, it sounds a lot more interesting than the title might suggest. Villwock says his classes have trained more than 250 volunteers over the past five years. These volunteers are trained to help themselves and their families in case of a disaster, and also to assist their neighbors. 

“That’s what separates Laguna [from other cities]. People are interested and passionate about preparing their homes and their neighbors’ homes. Inevitably, these people will be able to help others,” says Villwock.  

Things everyone can do to be prepared

Every week in the program presents a different discussion. “I challenge the class to go home and do one thing to prepare themselves,” Villwock says. The next week he asks them to share what they did. Things like having 72 hours worth of water for every family member, checking batteries for flashlights, having a wrench to turn off utilities are easy yet critical things every household should have in case of an emergency.  

Villwock stresses the latter in a story about the Northridge earthquake: “Fire trucks were driving down streets turning off people’s gas because people didn’t know how.” 

The frustration – and folly – of this is that during an event such as a large earthquake when emergency resources are strained, the more we can do to help ourselves and our neighbors, the fewer impediments there are for emergency crews to tackle the truly critical tasks.

The city’s new CERT class starts January 9. (Visit the city’s website for more information under Police Department and Emergency Preparedness.)

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Some of the information you’ll find Jordan Villwock’s office in the Police Department

Social media, NIXLE and AlertOC help get the word out

In addition to the city’s CERT program, and developing citywide emergency plans, Villwock also oversees the police department’s social media. He says one of the most important things is alerting the community. 

“Before this position was established we didn’t bridge that gap very well,” he notes.  Now, however, the city uses two alert systems, NIXLE and AlertOC. The NIXLE alert is mostly for traffic, although it does give other alerts as well. 

AlertOC is much more targeted and, for this reason, Villwock strongly urges everyone to sign up (simply go to www.AlertOC.com). AlertOC sends out messages based on your geographical location. For example, if there is a fire in South Laguna, those residents would be given instructions that pertain to their location. 

People in North Laguna would receive different instructions. 

Next Door Laguna Beach

Another way Villwock helps the city connect is through Next Door Laguna Beach. 

“We launched a Next Door account a couple of years ago. It’s like a Facebook page for your neighborhood,” he says. “We really wanted neighbors to talk to neighbors for purposes of public safety and disaster preparedness.” 

The city has created 17 neighborhoods. Other cities that weren’t so on top of things have had residents creating their own neighborhoods, which can be problematic. 

“Next Door is our largest platform to reach our residents,” explains Villwock. “We have 4,094 claimed households which equates to 27 percent of all Laguna Beach residents on this platform. It’s a great opportunity to engage the community.”

You still need to call the police

It may be a great way to engage the community, but it’s not a great way to report a crime. Villwock explains that while he can post things he wants the various neighborhoods to know, he can’t see what’s being discussed on the site. 

“I can see what people’s responses are to my posts, but not what is being discussed (beyond that),” he says. This has caused some confusion with people “reporting” incidents on Next Door assuming that the police will handle them. 

Unfortunately, since the police can’t read the Next Door discussion they’re not aware of the problem and it doesn’t get addressed. The bottom line is, “People still need to call the police,” says Villwock.

Making preparedness a top priority

For the past 16 years, Villwock has worked in Laguna Beach, since his days as a student at Dana Hills High School. “I have a lot of interest in this community,” he says.

 The fact that Laguna is prone to every kind of natural disaster one can think of in California makes it especially attractive for someone in his line of work. 

“The best part is there are so many hazards; it’s a challenge to prepare for,” he says, a statement only someone immersed in disaster preparedness can make without sounding careless of the tragedies that can occur. It’s not that he wants them to happen, of course, just that he enjoys developing by the range of strategies and tactics that need to be in place.

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Jordan Villwock in his office: photos of recent disasters hang behind his desk

Creating his own blueprint

The inherent challenges Laguna faces, plus good fortune in having a supportive city council and staff, as well as a genuine passion for what he does, has allowed Villwock to create a critical position where one did not exist before. 

“There is a learning curve because this position is new. I can make this what I want with the help of management, but I don’t have a blueprint to follow. I can make it my own,” he notes. 

And he has. In addition to his work in the city, Villwock is active in several organizations outside of the City. One example is the Urban Area Working Group. This group is made up of 21 members who vote on security initiatives for the county. 

Villwock says “I make sure Laguna doesn’t get lost.” 

Fighting for South County

Another group that Villwock is a member of is the Orange County Emergency Managers Association. He was recently recognized with the Helping Hands award for his work “helping out for the greater good of emergency management in Orange County,” according the city’s website. 

“I advocate for South County. We might not have the population of Anaheim, but my voice is as big as Anaheim’s,” he says with a smile.

Prepare, prepare, prepare

Residents in Laguna Beach are very lucky that Jordan Villwock is so passionate about his job. And that should help everyone sleep a little better. Of course, the city had emergency plans before he took this job, but there wasn’t one person solely responsible for them. 

And because disasters do happen, much as we like to think they won’t, it’s nice to know how seriously these plans are taken. “3 a.m…that’s when these plans are worth their weight in gold,” says Villwock emphatically. 

As far as disasters go, “You prepare for one, you prepare for all,” according to Villwock. The key is, of course, to do just that: prepare. At 3 a.m. we will all be glad we did. For more information on emergency preparedness visit the city’s website  (www.lagunabeachcity.net) under the Fire Department.


Carla Tesak Arzente: Her saltfineart gallery adds zest and an international flavor to the Laguna art scene

Story by LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

The woman in the painting gazes out of the train window. The light falls faintly on her arm; her expression is inscrutable. Is she arriving somewhere with hope in her eyes? Or leaving a place in sadness? 

Both interpretations of this work of art by famous El Salvadorian artist Rafael Varela, known as one of the master realists of Latin American art, feel deeply personal to Carla Tesak Arzente, on whose wall at home the painting hangs. 

Carla, owner of saltfineart & raw salt gallery, at 346 N. Coast Hwy, is an immigrant, born of Hungarian parents who lived most of their adult lives in El Salvador. She knows the melancholy that comes with leaving home and family and friends; but she also knows the joy of arrival in a place that warms the wandering soul and feels instinctively the right place to settle. 

In Carla’s case, as for so many of us, that place is Laguna Beach, which also provides the perfect setting for her passionate love of art. 

Carla Tesak attributes her deep passion for art to her father’s influence

“My earliest memories are of my father taking anyone who crossed our doorstep on a tour around our house. Each of the hundreds of paintings had a story. When he was dying and lost his ability to speak, when people were visiting for my wedding, he would point to each one knowing I could tell the story in his place,” she says. “Varela’s Girl on a Train was my favorite as a young girl.” 

The painting spent a brief period of time “lying next to the bathroom scale in his home, awaiting a place to hang,” she says, “because he had such a huge collection and had run out of space on his walls. I begged him to send it to me, but at first he was reluctant. Like me, he wanted to keep all the art pieces he bought.”

Her late father’s influence on Carla’s life has been profound, though except for Varela’s work, Carla says that her taste differs from his in most regards. 

But she shares his pleasure in stimulating conversation through art. And that’s exactly what happens when passersby wander into the gallery: conversations.

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Saltfineart features an intriguing selection of pieces by famous Latin American artists as well as emerging local artists

“We love to educate people. We live off our windows,” she says. “Where we are located now is perfect; we have Sue Greenwood, JoAnn Artman and Kelsey Michael as neighbors, to mention just them for a start. They’re terrific, and there’s a kind of cross-pollination that goes on, an energy that happens from our collective presence here on this block. 

“Of course the Art Museum is close by too. I wish I’d known how vital location is when I first started the gallery back in 2009,” she adds. “That was a tough time for us. But of course there was also the recession then. Still we managed to survive even though I knew nothing about business, I’d barely seen a balance sheet.”

For many years Carla worked as a copywriter for Young & Rubicam, one of the top advertising firms in the world, rising to the executive level as a creative director and working on national campaigns ranging from Wrigley’s to Chevron. 

So Carla has always been an ideas person, with plenty of passion and heart and generosity in the mix, all qualities that served her well despite her former lack of business acumen. 

These traits of hers are evident as I chat to Carla, whose excitable flow of words reminds me of a popcorn machine in full popping mode. Her charm is irresistible.

“When we moved here, I thought I might work in a gallery. Then I thought, why not open a gallery?” she explains.

So she did. The pristine white walls of saltfineart provide a backdrop to a mix of conceptual, pop and a little representative art, some works created by famous artists – famous in many parts of the world, that is, yet little known in the States, particularly in California – and some by locals just beginning their careers.

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All are welcome in Carla’s gallery, from first-time art buyers to collectors: here Carla chats with gallery director Suzanne Walsh and me, hiking shoes no problem

“Maybe three out of 35 artists came with collectors in tow,” she says. “We actually like first-time art buyers. Some of them stay for hours talking about the work on the walls. Over time some of our artists gather collectors. There’s almost a chemical reaction that occurs, which is great, one thing leads to another and suddenly we’re helping fill an entire house with art. 

“From the artists’ point of view, we want to provide space for Latin American but also emerging artists, and we love to educate people about background and style and the symbolism in some of the more abstract pieces, seen in the context of history and culture – why a kitten in a painting might be telling us something about violence, for example,” she adds. “Mostly what we hope for is an emotional response.”

The “we” in question includes her elegant gallery director, Suzanne Walsh: “It’s a tale of two girls,” Carla notes. “Suzanne is indispensable. I love what is weird, and passionate, and interesting. She understands, she has the same passion, but knows we have to pay the rent too. There has to be a balance in the art business to stay alive.”

The two met when Carla’s dog “busted” into Peter Blake’s gallery, where Suzanne was working at the time. 

“We had lunch and bonded over my salami and butter sandwich,” Carla explains. “Suzanne’s parents are from Poland. We talked about this funny thing Americans do, putting mayonnaise on their sandwiches instead of buttering the sides of the bread. Then of course we talked so much about art.”

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Carla loves to discuss the stories behind each of the pieces she chooses

Saltfineart gets its name from Carla’s belief that, like salt, art adds zest to life and crosses all boundaries. 

“As a gallery owner, I know I have to keep things fresh and interesting,” she says. “Here in Laguna, there is such a wide swath of support for all kinds of art, so we can all follow our passion. That’s what makes this town so great, along with the energy and goodwill I feel.”

And Carla is giving back to the community, working with Ryman Arts, the Laguna College of Art and Design, the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach and the Laguna Art Museum, to mention just a few nonprofits – and of course, she plays a significant role through her gallery in expanding our horizons internationally, one artwork at a time. 

Saltfineart is clearly not just the flavor of the month. The gallery, and Carla Tesak Arzente, and her husband George and children Georgie, Charlotte and Henry – her “magnum opus” as she describes her family unit – are thankfully here to stay.


Don’t go big, go small, says Aaron Talarico: Laguna’s future will depend on the presence of young families

Story by LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

I interviewed Aaron Talarico at his home office on a rainy Wednesday morning, finding my way to his place by putting one careful sneaker in front of another on the narrow muddy sidewalk abutting Coast Highway, traffic swishing past me within what felt like inches. Even professional tightrope walkers would have found it a challenge. (Here I exaggerate.)

“Those sidewalks need to be fixed,” Aaron said immediately when he met me at the bottom of his yard and led me up to his office overlooking the Pacific, the ocean’s surface silkily silver on that wet January day. 

“But this view – it’s so wonderful,” we both agreed. 

And that’s Laguna, right? We have our problems, but boy, do they feel insignificant given all our advantages. Doesn’t mean we can’t improve matters, though, as Aaron strongly believes.

Aaron Talarico, Laguna born and bred, is personable, amiable, and involved

Young by Laguna standards – our population is definitely aging – Aaron opened his eyes and saw the world, or at least bright lights and white walls, for the first time in 1980 at what was then South Coast Hospital, now Mission Hospital, only a few miles from where he now lives with his wife Catherine, young daughters Caroline and Claire, and in-utero son, who is scheduled to arrive in May.

Aaron attended Laguna schools, winning many awards for tennis, and, until his sophomore year in college at Notre Dame, he had a singular ambition: to join Andre Agassi and company as one of the sport’s greats. Finally, after several injuries, he realized the impossibility of his dream, though he didn’t give up easily.

Singles tennis taught Aaron personal responsibility

“Tennis taught me how to lose,” he notes wryly, though his current success in the real estate business suggests that he doesn’t have to rely on that particular skill too often these days.

Aaron wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. (A personal aside: that’s a very uncomfortable image, is it not? For the mother, if not the baby. But I digress.)

“I feel lucky that my parents moved here when they did, in the early seventies,” he says. “My dad was a county planner and my mom a kindergarten teacher. People in those kinds of professions can’t afford to live here anymore, especially young families with kids. That’s a problem.”

This generational gap is only going to get worse, Aaron believes, as Laguna becomes an increasingly desirable destination internationally, resulting in extremely wealthy people buying second and third homes here, visiting only once in a while. This is already happening.

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Rain or shine, the view from Aaron’s home office is spectacular

“Laguna has fantastic schools. But you have to have school-age kids for them to continue to flourish in the future,” he says.

Aaron knows there’s no easy answer, but he does have a suggestion or two. 

“I’d rather see four one-million dollar homes built than one four-million dollar home,” he says. “There are plenty of young families out there who would choose a smaller house in Laguna over a bigger place in Irvine or Ladera Ranch, if only more [such homes] were available, more easily approved, and more effectively marketed. We need Laguna to stay multigenerational.”

True to his beliefs, Aaron and wife Catherine and family live in a 900 square foot home now and so far have never lived anywhere larger. 

Also, in 2004, Aaron bought the land behind his house and after four years of bureaucratic challenges, built two stunning but small homes on the property, each 1000 square feet. 

There are other ways to attract young families, Aaron believes: “I think we need more small kid-friendly open spaces scattered around the neighborhoods, pocket parks, especially in South Laguna.” 

Young, old, and in-between: Laguna will benefit from a multigenerational mix of locals

Aaron also wants to make sure that older Lagunans have the ability to continue to live here. While he’s a big supporter of the Susi Q aging in place initiative, he feels that a couple of assisted living facilities, perhaps close to Mission Hospital, would be a welcome addition.

His love for Laguna is absolute, but it frustrates him that so many decisions are tied to parking, for example. “It’s a dated way of looking at things,” he says. “We need to welcome fresh thinking. Be more flexible.”

Locals also need to listen to each other more, he feels. Aaron has done just that for years, serving as a board member of the Chamber of Commerce and on a variety of civic committees since 2000, including the Recreation Committee, where he was in part responsible for the overhaul of the kids’ playground off Main Beach. 

“I love to take my kids there, knowing I helped improve it so much,” he says. “It feels good to make a difference, however small.”

Click on photo for a larger image

 

True to his beliefs, Aaron built two small homes on land behind his house

A few years ago Aaron founded the NextGen group with the goal of encouraging his generation, especially those in their thirties and forties, to become more involved in the decision-making that now, and in the future, will affect the tenor and ambience of our town.

“At plenty of City Council or committee meetings, I’ve been the youngest one there by 20 or 30 years,” he says. “My wife and I are encouraging our friends to do what they can, even just to show up, because that’s so important, though we know ourselves how hard it is to find time with kids and work commitments.”

In Aaron’s mind, Laguna’s “greatest generation” consists of those who saved the Canyon, encouraged the arts community to flourish, and beautified Main Beach and Heisler Park, among other major accomplishments. 

“What will our generation’s legacy be?” he asks.

You can bet that whatever that legacy turns out to be, Aaron Talerico’s name will be mentioned when our town’s history is told. That man was born to serve, I can tell, and I’m not just talking about his tennis game.

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