These Earth-Conscious Entrepreneurs Are Making a Profit with Purpose in California's Central Coast SLO CAL's small business owners see the value of sustainable approaches—and the locals and tourists benefit big time.

By Jonathan Small

Key Takeaways

  • San Luis Obispo County, or SLO CAL, is a hidden tourist destination between LA and San Franciso.
  • The area boasts quaint beach towns on the coast and vineyard-covered estates in the hills
  • SLO CAL's small business owners are focused on sustainability and upcycling.
Photo by Acacia Productions/Maven

You've heard of SoCal, home to Hollywood stars, surfer dudes, and jam-packed freeways. But how much do you know about SLO CAL?

This hidden gem smack between LA and San Francisco boasts 80 miles of pristine beaches and lush vineyard-covered hills. SLO stands for San Luis Obispo County and is a hotbed of creative, sustainable business activity. Entrepreneurs there keep finding new ways to use limited resources regeneratively, often upcycling discarded items and making them beautiful—and valuable.

On a recent trip to the charming towns of Cayucos, Morro Bay, and Cambria, I was impressed by the number of popular mom-and-pop operations that turn one person's waste into another's treasure. What about the area that makes people want to make more with less?

"It's just part of the culture around here," says Ryan Fortini, who opened up the revamped Pacific Motel from a former rundown motor lodge. "You're limited by not only what's available but also by what's allowed in our county. But this invites extreme creativity."

Here are a few sustainable businesses to check out next time you're in the area.

The Pacific Motel

Interesting fact: The word "motel" was invented in San Luis Obispo. Back in 1925, an architect named Arthur Heineman built the Milestone Mo-Tel Inn explicitly designed for all the new drivers on the road. Motels have popped up along highways across the US ever since, but many have become run-down relics of another time as travelers' taste for accommodations has changed.

A few years ago, married couple Ryan and Marisa Fortini saw potential in some sketchy motels in their hometown of Cayucos, a small beach town with 2200 residents. They spent two years remodeling the former Dolphin Inn, first constructed in the 1920s. The revamped and renamed Pacific Motel maintains all the charm of original beach bungalows with a modern twist. The Fortinis removed all the ugly asphalt and gravel and replaced it with palm trees and succulents. The rooms were stripped entirely, redone, and transformed into a clean, boho beach chic aesthetic. Outside, they turned a 1966 Chevy PT step van into a vintage food truck that serves beverages and snacks. Guests can ride to the beach or around town on courtesy vintage cruisers. 399 S Ocean Ave, Cayucos, CA

Photos by The Pacific Motel

The Shell Shop

This store has been selling seashells by the seashore since 1955. It all started when store owner David Thomas was 11 years old, hocking Abalone shells from a shell stand in his hometown of Morro Bay. His father was so impressed with his young entrepreneur he opened a brick-and-mortar shell shop a few years later. The iconic store is impossible to miss, with a modified Shell Oil sign sitting on its roof. The Shell Shop carries both local shells and shells from 22 countries worldwide, including East Africa, India, Vietnam, and the Philippines. In some countries, the shells are tossed in the garbage, but Thomas and his family have worked with their international partners to preserve their aquatic treasures. Shells range from 15 cents to $15, but some collector crustaceans go for as much as $12,000. 590 Embarcadero, Morro Bay

Maven Leather and Design

Artist Emma Thieme moved to SLO CAL in 2020 after spending years making custom leather motorcycle seats in the Maine wilderness. She opened a studio and storefront in Cayucos that offers all sorts of unique leather goods made from the "rescued hides" of American Bison. These hides would usually be discarded, but Thieme transforms them into beautiful bags, belts, and plant swings using natural dyes made from plants and insects. "The affinity I have for our environment inspires me to protect it for future generations, which is why I use every piece of the hide and incorporate natural plant and insect dyeing into my work whenever possible," she says. "Many of the colors you see in my work were achieved sustainably through my own natural dye experiments. For these, I use plants and insect pigments that have provided the human race with color for millennia." 146 N Ocean Ave, Cayucos

Photo by Acacia Productions

The Hidden Kitchen

The original Hidden Kitchen in the town of Cambira was literally hidden in an alleyway behind a wooden fence covered in ivy. Owner Amanecer Eizner dreamed of serving waffles with a blue corn strain growing on the West Coast for centuries. Raised in the new age Eselan Institute (where Don Draper had his epiphany in the final scene of Mad Men), Eizner is rooted in community, healthy living, and sustainable traditions. The restaurant sources most of its food locally, limits plastic use, recycles its water for the onsite plants, and composts and sends the waste to a nearby farm. But even more importantly, the gluten-free, organic food, including blue corn tacos and superfood smoothies, is insanely delicious. In addition to Cambria, there is a second location in Cayucos. Be sure to get there early. Lines to get in wrap around the block. 2164 Center Street, Cambria, and 113 North Ocean Ave, Cayucos.

Photo by Hidden Kitchen

Jonathan Small

Entrepreneur Staff

Editor in Chief of Green Entrepreneur

Jonathan Small is editor-in-chief of Green Entrepreneur, a vertical from Entrepreneur Media focused on the intersection of sustainability and business. He is also an award-winning journalist, producer, and podcast host of the upcoming True Crime series, Dirty Money, and Write About Now podcasts. Jonathan is the founder of Strike Fire Productions, a premium podcast production company. He had held editing positions at Glamour, Stuff, Fitness, and Twist Magazines. His stories have appeared in The New York Times, TV Guide, Cosmo, Details, and Good Housekeeping. Previously, Jonathan served as VP of Content for the GSN (the Game Show Network), where he produced original digital video series.

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