High Profile: Dave Fansler

dave fansler

Fresno native, David Fansler, owner of Yosemite Ranch, Pismo’s Coastal Grill and Westwoods BBQ & Spice Co., is a talented restauranteur and gifted entrepreneur. Creative, witty, handsome and charming, this former San Joaquin Memorial student is well-loved by friends and family alike, known not just for his business savvy but also for his sense of humor and karaoke skills.

Dave Fansler was born on December 1, 1953, and was part of the first graduating 8th grade class of St. Anthony’s in 1967. According to his childhood friend, Owen Sullivan, now President of Northwest Home Company, Dave was not just intelligent, but also “the teacher’s pet,” and considered a charmer ... even by the nuns! In order to attend San Joaquin Memorial High School, Dave and his classmates had to take an aptitude test, and, true to form, Dave scored higher than anyone else taking the test.

As a high school student at SJM, Dave’s talents were already varied. He was the Social Chairman who organized all the dances and sports rallies, was one of a few young men in the drama class and had the lead role in “Sunday Costs Five Pesos,” and played football and tennis as a senior.

Dave wasn’t just active in extra-curricular activities, but also worked odd jobs through high school. His first job was a soda jerk for his Aunt Roma at Airways Coffee Shop. He went on to sling hamburgers at Lesterburger and worked as a cashier at Country Boy Market, proving that even as a youth, food was a common theme with Dave. According to his friends, Dave could eat legendary quantities of food at the speed of light.

all of his restaurants for the last 20 years. His investors have never received less than an 8% annual return and have made as high as 20%. Not only that, they have all made steady returns for the last 80 quarters. In 2008, when the economy had tanked and banks were giving no loans for any kind of project, Dave expanded with Pismo’s using his financing model. When Pismo’s broke ground in late 2008, there were only a handful of other buildings under construction in all of Fresno.

In talking with Dave about his business, he explained that he has two very important customers: his dining customers and his investor customers. Jerry Cook of Cook Land Company, who has been involved with Dave since the beginning, told Dave that if his investment went well, he would continue to support and invest with him.

“Dave has met and far exceeded my greatest expectations many times over ... he is truly one of the smartest, multi-faceted and multi-dimensional people that I know. Some people know a little bit about a lot, but with Dave one can discuss at great length anything from architecture, to finance, to great cuisine, and he is knowledgeable about it all. He has great passion in what he does and has so many unique skills that are very rare. He is the ‘Entrepreneur’s Entrepreneur,’” says Jerry Cook.

Also important and key to the success of his restaurants is having great and loyal employees. Dave has enabled his managers to own an interest in his restaurants. He also has purchased homes, refurbished them and “bonused” employees with the down payment funds out of gratitude for their loyalty. He continually encourages research and development and strives to keep his employees up to date on new and innovative developments in the restaurant world. The Fansler Restaurant Group now employs over 350 people and intends to do over $24 million this year in business.

In addition to being a talented restauranteur, Dave is known for his singing skills. His karaoke career began in the ‘90’s at the Plaza Ventana Restaurant on West Shaw, and Owen Sullivan remembers Dave dragging him there every other week when he was down from Sacramento so that he could listen to his childhood friend sing Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Harry Connick Jr. He can definitely hold his own with a microphone.

Dave, who is currently rebuilding a cabin in Bass Lake as a legacy for his family, is father to his only child, Savonna, and grandfather to Savonna and her husband, Mark Coelho’s twins, Charles and Colette, who he affectionately calls, “Charlie and CoCo.” Dave lives with girlfriend, Roxanne Santiago, and her daughter, Cierra.

“Rox is a partner in my restaurants, as well as my life,” Dave says. “She nourishes my soul, keeps me grounded and even helps select most of my clothing.” Savonna calls Rox “the baby whisperer,” because of how well CoCo and Charlie respond to her.

Joey Valdivia, of Commercial Real Estate Fortune Associates, who also graduated with Dave at SJM in 1971, says, “Most people are not aware of Dave’s loyalty, his generosity and the soft side he has for his family, his friends and his employees.”

All along this Central Valley native has aspired to have the best restaurant, serve the best food and deliver the best dining experience a patron could ask for, as well as keeping his investors just as pleased and more than satisfied. He has definitely succeeded on all counts.

Dave joined the SAE Fraternity in college, graduating from San Diego State with a Bachelor of Science Degree and a major in Accounting. He returned to Fresno after college, where he worked as a junior accountant at DeMera, DeMera & Cameron, and then at Hills, Renaut, Homen & MeCormick. In spite of this, the very day he received word that he had passed the CPA exam and could now call himself a CPA, Dave quit his job and went into the restaurant business.

Paul Fansler, Dave’s father, owned Piccadilly Inn at Shaw and Van Ness. He was converting the Airport Marina Hotel at the airport to a Piccadilly Inn. Disappointed that Dave was not going to pursue a CPA career, his father pushed Dave to refurbish and begin operating the food and beverage side of the new airport location. This was December 1979 when the prime lending rate was a whopping 18% and Dave was only 26. Thus The Steak and Anchor was started and Dave’s career as a restauranteur began.

A few years later, Stanley’s Armenian Cuisine at Cedar and Shaw was selling out; Dave extensively remodeled the whole restaurant and re-opened it as Wiliker’s. The new restaurant was a huge hit, and there were often lines around the building. After 12 years, Dave grew weary of the college bar business and wanted to get more respect for his food, so he made the decision to sell it; 20 years later people still talk about the fun times they had at Wiliker’s.

During this same time, Cask ‘n Cleaver restaurant, located at Marks and Shaw, had closed its doors. While Dave was securing the lease, he took note that the landscaping around the Cask ‘n Cleaver was dominated by redwood pine trees. He capitalized on the theme and after remodeling the restaurant, opened it as “Tahoe Joe’s Famous Steakhouse.”

Dave was meticulous in the detail of Tahoe Joe’s décor, personally going over every detail, even going to swap meets, consignment shops, historical archives, and art galleries, looking for Lake Tahoe memorabilia to use in his restaurant. Business took off like a rocket. Seven months later Dave took over the lease on a bankrupt Sizzler at Cedar and Herndon to develop his second Tahoe Joe’s. Soon after, Dave opened Tahoe Joe’s locales in Roseville, Bakersfield, Folsom, San Luis Obispo and Vacaville.

“I have known Dave for over 40 years ... he continues to amaze all of his old friends with his constant creativity, high food quality and ability to communicate with his patrons how important it is to him that they have a great dining experience. While he was a big man on campus at SJM High School, it is safe to say none of us ever saw this level of success coming!” says Linda Penner, Chair of the Board of State and Community Probations, and one of Dave’s SJM classmates.

Dave’s hands-on approach and personalized atmosphere was received well by the public. Not only did they feel they got a great meal, but the dining experience he created was unprecedented: he was often on-site, personally overseeing every aspect of the business and even mingling with his customers. In 2001, Dave sold his interest in Tahoe Joe’s to Buffets International and agreed to work a five year management contract.

“Dave is a very focused and driven person. He focuses on the small things most people overlook and he is driven to make sure that everything he is associated with is nothing but the best,” says Owen Sullivan.

Having signed a non-compete agreement with Buffets Inc., Dave had to wait a couple years before lunging back into the businesses with the creation of Yosemite Ranch at Cedar and Shepherd. Dave uses a creative financing model of convertible notes that he has used to attract local investors to help finance.

Features Editor Ann T. Sullivan Whitehurst
Photographer Don Dizon