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Featured Image: A line of customers at The Fuel Shak extends out the door during the restaurant’s last day of operations on Sunday, Jan. 16. The café experienced long lines of customers throughout its final weekend, even up to the final minutes of the doors being open. Photo: C. Jayden Smith
By C. Jayden Smith
Yolanda Quam emerged through the front door of her restaurant, bright and emotional, to a round of applause and cheers from those who had decided to stay for the last hurrah.
It was just after 1 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 16, after The Fuel Shack had ended its final day of operations.
“Dreams can come true,” Quam said tearfully, as she stood in front of the outdoor dining area and addressed the people who had stuck around.
The support she received from her audience was fitting, as it reflected the love with which The Fuel Shack had supplied the San Clemente and Capistrano Beach community for the past three years.
Yolanda opened her dream venture with her husband David in December 2018 after working for 25 years as a pediatrician in Chino Hills, and for 10 years at a community clinic in Ontario.
She had always been fond of cooking and baking for her family, but she wanted to take the next step of starting a breakfast and lunch café.
“In 2015, I was too young for retirement, but I left medicine so that I could get out and get some experience, and see what it meant to open up a restaurant,” said Quam, who turned 62 on Dec. 12.
She and David traveled around as she pieced together what she wanted to serve her customers, with the chief desire being food that stood apart from the normal fare.
Through multiple menu changes, visitors were able to taste açaí bowls, burritos, and her now-famous blueberry muffins.
Her original goal upon opening The Fuel Shack was to foster a community spot for people to come by, hang out, and feel welcome to stay, just as if they had walked into her own home.
“I grew up with grandmothers who were from the South, and when you went to your grandmother’s house, you were always going to have a fun time,” Quam said. “She didn’t care who you brought, even if she didn’t know them, and (they) felt like that was their grandmother too.”
She felt that she had accomplished her objective despite being new to the San Clemente community.
Quam recalled the outpouring of support she and David received after a break-in in August 2019, including apologies and a willingness to be patient with them while they worked to fix the place up. That was just one example of how the community reciprocated the love.
“It was so overwhelming,” she said. “I’d only been here for a few months, and they just kept coming.”
After The Fuel Shack announced on its Instagram page on Thursday, Jan. 13, that it would close at the end of the day on Sunday, the sentiment continued.
Throughout the last few days of business, the lines to order from the contactless front window winded around the outdoor dining area.
Hundreds of people came around from near and far to say their goodbyes, share well wishes, and stories from the times they had with Yolanda, David, and the staff.
“It’s a family (here),” Quam said. “My grandmother used to say, ‘You remember what you ate, but you remember more how you felt while you were eating.’”
Anjie Martinis, a regular since the restaurant’s opening, thought The Fuel Shack would be around for a long time to come. She was surprised to learn the news of their closing on Saturday from a post in the public Facebook group San Clemente Life.
“(Yolanda and Dave) are welcoming to everyone; they had healthy, good food,” Martinis said, adding, “It’s a shame that they’re closing.”
One couple had only first visited a few days ago after spending time in Laguna Beach. When they heard the news, they made sure to drive back up from San Diego to stop by one more time.
It was that kind of magnetism that vaulted The Fuel Shack to the No. 13 spot on Yelp’s Top 100 Places to Eat in the U.S. for 2020, after its first full year of service. Of that list, it placed sixth in California and first in Orange County.
The process of earning such a high reputation did not come easy, as Quam recounted during her speech. She went through 27 employees in their first year, as they worked to find people who matched their work ethic.
Through all that, she and David managed to field the “A-team” staff who were there on Sunday.
“Don’t cry because it’s over, everybody, smile because this happened for me,” Quam told her audience. “You’ve been a recurring partner to my dream and I really appreciate you.”
Once Quam finished, she greeted several people who had waited to see her. She had been driving back and forth to bring her staff some Lucille’s Bar-B-Que on their last day.
Included in that group was Quam’s younger brother, Allen Wideman, his wife Charlotte, and their daughter, Alexis McCall. They had come down from Norwalk to support their family, as they had routinely done for the last three years.
“We like the food and the atmosphere,” Allen said of his and Charlotte’s experience at the café.
Charlotte echoed the sentiment, adding that “Yolanda’s good spirit” and the staff’s cheerful attitudes contributed to The Fuel Shack’s environment.
Quam said that they impacted the community by brightening people’s days, making people happy, and putting positive energy into their food.
The restaurant also provided lunches for local surf therapy groups and other organizations, an indication of trust between them and the community.
Now that Quam feels she achieved what she set out to do, she knows that it is time for her to step back and rest. She assured people on Sunday that she will still be around San Clemente, and encouraged them to show love whenever they see her out in public.
Quam also made sure to add one more statement, a reminder of the joy and energy she brought to the community through her food.
“We just wanted to have fun,” she said.
C. Jayden Smith graduated from Dana Hills High in 2018 before pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in digital and broadcast journalism from the University of North Texas. After graduating in December 2020, he reported for the Salina Journal in Salina, Kansas. Jayden loves college football and bothering his black lab named Shadow.