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Derby owner invests heavily in eatery

Updated Feb. 19, 2015 Dustin Nicolarsen, owner of The Derby, is so excited and confident about the future of his restaurant that he exercised the option to purchase the property last year, put $100,000 into a remodel of the patio in time for last year’s Breeders’ Cup, put $50,000 into a masonry twin-sided fireplace, and just spent $40,000 on a sprinkler system.

“I didn’t dump all this money into The Derby just to sell it,” Nicolarsen told this morning. “This is the biggest real estate holding I have and I have no intention of downsizing.”

Nicolarsen, who had been a manager for several years, took over ownership of the restaurant in 2007 and the Arcadia Historical Society and Arcadia Chamber of Commerce produced a 90th Anniversary celebration for the iconic eater in 2011, which included the installation of a History Lives Here marker. The Sturniolo family, which bought the restaurant from the family of legendary jockey George Woolf in 1951, retained ownership of a percentage of the horse racing memorabilia when it was turned over to Nicolarsen in 2007. Four years earlier, Chip Sturniolo and his wife Bonnie, who took over management of the restaurant in 2001, two years after Chip’s parents died, put 370 lots from the collection of horse racing memorabilia on auction in Beverly Hills in 2003. This included many of the most prominent pieces relating to Seabiscuit since that was the year the “Seabiscuit” movie was released about the champion horse, and interest was at a peak.

Chip Sturniolo and Nicolarsen are currently in discussions about the future ownership and/or leasing of the percentage of the rest of the collection still owned by the Sturniolo family, some of which has been advertised for sale recently, which has caused some speculation about the status of the restaurant itself. Craig Doolittle, a legal agent for the retired Chip Sturnicolo in the sale of some of the horse racing memorabilia that has been showcased at The Derby for many years, confirmed to Arcadia’s Best that they are seeking investors who have an interest in horse racing that would purchase the collection as a whole and allow it to be showcased at Santa Anita Park horse race track or another local location. He confirmed that The Derby is not for sale and they are hopeful that it will “be operating for many years to come with Dustin at the helm.”

“I’m very young and not even thinking about retirement,” Nicolarsen said, emphasizing that discussions relating to the memorabilia are not related to the operation of the restaurant itself. He also owns Opera restaurant in Monrovia.

— By Scott Hettrick

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