Martino retires from hospitality but not from service

By Raiza Giorgi

The phone rang and John Martino instantly knew who was on the other end when a distinct voice said, “Hello, John? Julia here.”

A self-proclaimed foodie, Martino almost jumped out of his skin with excitement as Julia Child introduced herself.

“Over the course of a few years I got to know Julia and we would have lunch, and I had to pinch myself because I had admired her for so long,” Martino said over lunch at his restaurant, Succulent Cafe in Solvang.

Martino has a following of his own. He recently retired as general manager of Hotel Corque in Solvang but continues to be a valued member of the Solvang and Santa Ynez Valley community serving in several organizations. Among other roles, he is the new president of the Solvang Chamber of Commerce board of directors.

“People think just because I retired that I’m not going to be involved, but just the opposite. I have more time to donate now,” he laughed.

Martino was born and raised in San Jose and has been involved in hospitality since he fell in love with Lake Tahoe in his early 20s, left the banking industry and took a job at the Harris Club.

Martino got married and had a daughter and saved money to buy his own hotel and restaurant in Palm Desert in 1965, then operated it for 15 years.

“When my marriage ended I needed a change of scenery and came to the Santa Ynez Valley, as a friend of mine had a restaurant, the Belle Terrase in Solvang, he needed a manager for. His former partner was Vincent B. Evans, who had tragically perished in a plane accident,” Martino said.

Martino recalled that in 1980 the valley and Solvang were just sleepy little communities that were busy during the summer but pretty quiet during the other seasons. The only wineries he could recall from that time were Firestone, Brander and Zaca Mesa.

“I became friends with Palmer Jackson, who owns the Alisal Guest Ranch, and they hired me to revamp their food and beverage department … I was there for 16 years. It was some of the best times of my life,” Martino said.

After leaving the Alisal in 2000 he went to the Santa Ynez Inn, which was just being built. Martino wrote the business plan and helped with getting the rooms designed and opened in October 2001.

“It was an incredible time to open a hotel as 9/11 just happened and people weren’t traveling, but we survived and got through it,” Martino said.

It was while at the Santa Ynez Inn that Martino was contacted by Child after a mutual friend introduced them. They talked about opening a culinary school, but she started declining in health so it never happened.

“Just even getting to talk with her and have the possibility was good enough for me. She was a great lady,” he said.

When the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians were building their original four-story hotel, they brought Martino aboard to help with designing the rooms and then he took over at Hotel Corque, formerly the Royal Scandinavian Inn, when the tribe bought it.

“The guest room is the most important because the layout has to be practical and it has to be luxurious,” he said.

Any time Martino stays at other establishments he notices the flooring and the carpeting first. The most important part of the room is the comfort of the bed and linens.

“When we renovated Hotel Corque, we took it down to the studs to make sure all the rooms were generous sizes and every detail was looked over with a fine-tooth comb,” he said.

During his tenure in hospitality in the valley, Martino has also enjoyed being in several organizations such as the Rotary Club and on the board of the Solvang chamber.

“As I spend more time with the chamber, we really want to tackle getting all of the (downtown) trees lit up and that our businesses thrive,” he said.

Martino has always had a passion for food, and with partners he bought the Succulent Cafe several years ago. He also works out six days a week because, he laughed, he can’t enjoy all the food without getting in some exercise.

“I love food. I love trying new restaurants and places all over the Central Coast. That’s definitely my main hobby,” Martino said.

“If only Julia could have come to Succulent when we took over. I think she would have loved it,” he added.