Developer Turned Restaurateur Heeded Dad’s Advice

By Lori Weisberg
The San Diego Union-Tribune.

If you’ve ever caught a concert at the House of Blues downtown, dined al fresco at the Patio in Pacific Beach, or maybe indulged in a long weekend at a pet-friendly vacation rental in Mission Beach, you have Gina Champion-Cain to thank — plus a bit of sage advice her father gave her when she was a young girl.

“He told my sister and me we could do whatever we wanted to do, and no one could stop us as long as we put our heart and soul into it,” recalled Champion-Cain, whose early career path followed her father’s to real estate development.

A serial entrepreneur, she has since moved on from overseeing multi-million-dollar housing and commercial deals to opening multiple restaurants, along with gourmet food and kitchen stores, developing a line of beach apparel and acquiring a portfolio of vacation rental properties.

So successful has her Patio dining concept become, she’s scouting future locations and making plans to bring her brand to the wine country in Northern California. Champion-Cain’s next Patio-inspired concept is due to open soon in Liberty Station. She talked with the Union-Tribune about her recent business ventures and what drives her zeal for new investments.

Q: Your professional pursuits have taken you from downtown apartment development to beach apparel. How are you able to sustain so many diverse businesses?

A: They’re diverse, but they’re not. I’m in the people business and, if you understand you’re in the hospitality business, you know it’s all about pleasing people, whether I’m providing them a great meal or a nice place to stay, or a nice shop where they’re buying my surf attire. I really see it as one. As a company, we really are one family. I have some superstars that run these different businesses and they are committed, which you can tell because they’re doing well.

Q: What drove your decision to get involved in developing the now rapidly growing chain of Patio restaurants?

A: People used to tease me, saying you should become a restaurant owner because I love to go out to eat. But I know restaurateurs and I’d say, oh God, I’m never going into that business. I watched how hard they worked, so I never had any intention of getting into it. Now that I’m doing it, it’s the success; the idea that wow, maybe I’m onto something here. I’m a real estate girl and to me it’s always location, location, location.

Q: When you first launched your development and real estate management business in the late 1990s, you were competing in an arena very much dominated by men. How challenging was that?

A: I was clearly more educated than many of my male counterparts, but always was paid less and given more of the administrative work early on in my development roles. I sucked it up and hung in there, knowing that I had a very strong work ethic and desire to succeed and that some day the tide would change for me, which it did. I never gave up. I never felt sorry for myself. I just rolled my sleeves up and worked my fanny off.

Q: What inspired you to launch a vacation rental business?

A: It was a shift because I didn’t have a choice. The economy had gone into the tank. I had this $350 million hotel, condo, retail and office space development right near the ballpark that I was trying to do, but it didn’t work out. It was 2009, 2010 and we couldn’t get any financing, so I was moping around and I thought, I have to do something. I stay at the beach a lot and have big golden retrievers and quarterly, I’d go with girlfriends and stay at a beach rental.

But most charge a fortune, are in bad condition and most don’t allow dogs. I remember saying to a girlfriend, there’s a business here where you have nice clean homes, you allow dogs and run them like a hotel. I bought my first one out of foreclosure in 2011. I came up with this cute logo, Luv Surf, and said we’re pet friendly. This was my beta test, in north Mission Beach. I now own 10 of them.

Q: Short term vacation rentals are at the center of a growing conflict in San Diego that is building toward new municipal regulations. How do you feel about the city’s move to beef up regulations?

A: I don’t really care what the city decides to do. The reality is people need to understand the history of Mission Beach. It’s different from any other community in San Diego when it comes to vacation rentals. It’s evolved as a vacation destination and was meant for the common man to be able to come and enjoy the beach. Therefore, they’ll never be able to get rid of short-term rentals in Mission Beach, because there is too much history. I won’t do short-term rentals anywhere besides Mission Beach.

Q: What are your plans for continued restaurant development?

A: I’m in escrow on a building in Petaluma where we will open another Patio. I’m looking at a space in Carmel for a new concept I’m developing, Patio Marketplace, which will be like a public market scene with a Patio at its core. We’re also looking at Santa Barbara, Santa Monica; we want to expand it along the West Coast. Personally, I’d like to see more good food in North County, but it’s been very difficult to find a spot that works for me in the coastal area.

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