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Yaco’s Chocolate Soup

Yaco’s Chocolate Soup:

Picturing SLO’s Downtown Revival 



In the recipe for San Luis Obispo’s favorite dessert, Chocolate Soup, every ingredient is essential. So it is for San Luis Obispo itself; every member of the community adds a unique ingredient to our small-town stew. Enter artist Richard Yaco, the man who helped give Chocolate Soup, and San Luis Obispo, its soul. 

The addition or absence of water can change anything. To make Chocolate Soup, the batter enters the oven entirely submerged in water. In forty-five minutes, the “soup” bakes and rises, leaving behind its soggy beginnings. In much the same manner, San Luis Obispo’s downtown emerged from torrential floods and chaos in 1969 through the renovation of Mission Plaza. Though initially controversial, Mission Plaza quickly became the heart and soul of San Luis Obispo. Perhaps it is true: you are what you eat. 

Chocolatey Goodness

Richard Yaco’s portraits lined the walls of the Chocolate Soup Restaurant, located at Monterey and Morro streets that served the San Luis Obispo community for nearly thirty years. Its fourth owner, Forrest Watts, finally closed Chocolate Soup’s doors in the late nineties and donated the Yaco portraits to the History Museum. The restaurant is remembered for its atmosphere, its homemade soups and salads and its signature dish, Chocolate Soup.

A decadent chocolate concoction, Chocolate Soup offered the diner a spongy chocolate cake in a pool of thick, rich pudding. The recipe shows only that the “soup” is made up of ordinary ingredients that in the process of cooking are transformed by water.

Citizen’s Gallery

Originally hailing from Santa Barbara, Richard moved to our town in 1970 following his tour of duty as a combat artist in Vietnam. The following year, his impressive portfolio gained him a full time teaching position at Cal Poly. Yaco soon found, though, that sketching people, not teaching them, was his real passion. He left Cal Poly, but returned two years later and became a dedicated, self-described “townie.” He was commissioned to sketch a “citizen’s gallery” to decorate a new restaurant called Chocolate Soup. At fifteen dollars per head, the artwork seen here emerged from his pen.

Yaco’s relationship with the local residents grew strong and his friendships permanent. To make a living, he created newspaper ads, sketched logos, and offered plans for building beautification projects. Of all of his SLO projects, he liked sketching the portraits best. Richard Yaco currently resides in up-state New York. 

Yaco Timeline

1967: Richard Yaco begins two years as a Combat Artist in the U.S. Marine Corps in Vietnam.

1969: Back in the States, Yaco is offered a teaching position at Cal Poly in the College of Architecture.

1971: Yaco journeys across America, chronicling his adventures in a book, Strangering, selected but not printed by Little, Brown and Co. in New York.

1974: Returning to Cal Poly and San Luis Obispo, Yaco resumes teaching classes and sketching art.

1975: Yaco sketches portraits to decorate the Chocolate Soup Restaurant

1976: The Anti-Nuclear movement gains momentum in San Luis Obispo with Yaco’s drawings in the forefront of the controversy.

1978: Yaco concludes his teaching career at Cal Poly.

1982: Living in Atascadero, Yaco routinely visits Malaysia, where he designs a resort community for a Chinese multimillionaire.

Present: A veteran in every conceivable way, Yaco now lives in upstate New York. 

The Construction of Mission Plaza

In 1965, the San Luis Obispo Downtown Association proposed a massive underground parking garage where Mission Plaza now stands. Monterey Street would remain a thoroughfare, bisecting the town as it had for much of SLO’s history.

In 1968 a heated campaign to preserve Mission San Luis Obispo ensued. A voter initiative to block the construction of the underground garage and close down Monterey Street passed by a margin of two-to-one.
A year later, more than thirty-three inches of rain fell on downtown San Luis Obispo. The severe flooding ravaged the downtown, prompting citizens to work together to stop future flooding by building Mission Plaza as a city beautification project.

In almost no time, open terraces and vibrant greenery decorated the plaza along with a bridge spanning San Luis Creek and a fountain near the Mission entrance on Chorro Street. The new Mission Plaza became a symbol of the community’s heritage, feel, and history. 

Timeline of Events:

1950: Two art students at San Luis Obispo Junior College, Ray Juarez and Pete Columbo, propose “Mission Gardens,” believed to be the first plan for a plaza in front of the Mission. 

1953: Local business owners propose removing older buildings, widening Monterey Street in front of the Mission, and paving over San Luis Creek for parking. The Soroptimist club and other civic organizations object. 

October, 1955: City Council asks the Cal Poly architecture department to investigate [study]the feasibility of different development plans for Monterrey Street and provide sketches. 

1955-1960: The Mission Gardens Plaza General Committee functions to raise the funds needed to purchase land next to the Mission to use in the Plaza’s construction. 

1965: The newly-formed Downtown Association proposes an underground parking structure for 200 cars in front of the Mission, underneath Monterey Street. Such a project would serve downtown businesses but to block development of a plaza. 

1965-1967: Local businesses continue to pressure City Council, supporting the underground parking structure and urging them to resist any plans requiring the closure of Monterey Street. 

June 7, 1967: Upon hearing a proposal for Mission Plaza by architecture students Walt Conwell, Jack Reineck, and Ralph Taylor, Mayor Clell Whelchel abruptly adjourns a City Council meeting and furiously leaves the courtroom. Their Mission Plaza proposal, backed by many private donors and a government grant, requires the closure of Monterey Street. 

July 10, 1967. A citizens committee circulates petitions formally requesting City Council to shut down Monterey Street. The City Council reluctantly agrees to hear the proposal. 

July 14-21, 1968: Petitions regarding Monterey Street’s closure are turned into the City Clerk: signatures in favor, 2,265; those opposed, 169. 

November 5, 1968: San Luis Obispo residents vote in favor of closing Monterey Street in front of the Mission and putting Mission Plaza in its stead. The voters also use the election to oust Mayor Whelchel and other City Council members who had tried to stifle the plans for Mission Plaza. 

January, 1969: Thirty-three inches of rain falls on the downtown area. Massive flooding ensues. 

May, 1970: Mayor Kenneth Schwartz officially breaks ground in front of the Mission. 

September 11, 1971: The dedication ceremony marks the completion of Mission Plaza. 

1974: A parcel from the White House is delivered to the City Council inviting a city official to visit Patricia Nixon. Mayor Kenneth Schwartz agrees and is presented with numerous awards for the community’s work in building Mission Plaza. 

Not Even Six Degrees of Separation

In the 1970’s, Louisiana Clayton Dart (Portrait 7) and Richard Chong (Portrait 1) corresponded regularly regarding San Luis Obispo’s Chinese history and its preservation. Richard Chong, an immigrant’s son, grew up alongside Howard Louis (Portrait 6), the son of the famous Chinese immigrant, Ah Louis. Howard served in the armed forces during World War Two, as did Fred Peterson (Portrait 8). Peterson, upon returning stateside, lived for thirty years in the Sauer-Adams Adobe, then owned by Genevieve Goff (Portrait 29).

Goff’s Adobe sits around the corner from Muzio’s Grocery, owned and operated for 32 years by Bud Muzio (Portrait 31). Bud Muzio sold the shop to Earl Bjorkland (Portrait 9) in 1973. Before buying Muzio’s, Bjorkland worked at the Sears Market with Ardell Breakey (Portrait 18). Dell’s favorite place to eat was Corcoran’s Cafe, owned and operated by Bob Corcoran (Portrait 4). Bob Corcoran was awarded the title of “Mr. San Luis Obispo” in 1973 by Councilmember Myron Graham (Portrait 20). Myron Graham worked to preserve San Luis Obispo history and art, the mission of Louisiana Clayton Dart.
Clearly, San Luis Obispo is the definition of a tight-knit community.
Yaco’s Chocolate Soup: Picturing the SLO Downtown Revival is the culmination of Cal Poly student Trevor Walker’s Senior Project.