Sondra Bernstein of the Girl & the Fig: The Evolution of a Community Celebrity

As wildly popular Sonoma restaurant the girl & the fig turns 20 this year, restaurateur Sondra Bernstein celebrates a milestone and keeps her eye on new ventures. Click through the gallery above for highlights from the girl & the fig over the past twenty years. Read the full story below. 

It’s been a long and somewhat crazy journey from elegant fig and goat cheese salads to hearty bowls of hot ramen. Parts of the adventure have been nail-biters, spanning some dozen restaurant openings and closings and an employee roster that has burgeoned from an original 18 to 200-plus.

But as Sondra Bernstein prepares to celebrate the girl & the fig’s 20th anniversary this summer, she quotes the mantra that propelled her into entrepreneurship back in 1997.

“Doing one thing in life is boring.”

That belief partly explains her extraordinary ambition, as owner today of so many downtown Sonoma businesses, including the girl & the fig, Suite D catering company and pop-up restaurant, the fig rig food truck and, debuting late this summer, the Rhône Room wine bar in front of her produce farm on the southern edge of town.

Bernstein also owns the tiny but mighty fig café in Glen Ellen and is in the planning stages for a new ramen restaurant, Noodle Spring, tentatively slated to open this year in the “container park” retail center being considered for the Lanning Building site along Highway 12 in Boyes Hot Springs.

At age 56, she jokes about slowing down. But as she discussed her plans over a recent lunch at her flagship restaurant, “slowing down” sure sounded a lot like ramping up.

She mused that she was going to start writing a third cookbook this year, but got too busy. So instead, she jumped into something nearly as time-consuming: publishing a new quarterly newspaper called fig chronicles that waxes poetic about seasonal topics from “latte art” to seed saving, local farmer profiles, recipes, cocktail tips and uses for her own line of shrubs, vinaigrettes, fig cakes, spiced nuts, salted fig caramels, jams, Tuscan fig body lotion and goat’s milk soap.

Bernstein’s got new girl & the fig wines underway, for her private label showcasing her favorite local Rhône grape varietals. And since that isn’t enough, she has just started making wines in France to export.

She has also pushed herself into philanthropy in her free time. In December, she founded Sonoma FIG Foundation, which assists in funding for start-up entrepreneurs in food, farming, food media, wine and spirits, restaurants and artisanal food production.

And all along the way, when she squeezes in business meetings at her restaurants, it’s common to see her pause mid-sentence and take a photo of her plate, so she can publish the shot on the multiple websites she personally creates and maintains.

These days, Bernstein is a true community celebrity, though she has eschewed the spotlight for her work desk, charity efforts and rare relaxation time with her two dogs. 

Growing her businesses has just been a natural path, she explained, since she moved from Los Angeles and started working in the Italian deli at Viansa Winery in Sonoma-Carneros in 1993. In that role, she drew on her culinary and restaurant management degree from The Restaurant School in her hometown of Philadelphia, plus her previous restaurant management experience, and by 1997 she had moved up to become Viansa’s director of operations, growing customers from about 50 people a day to some 5,000.

“But if I was working so hard, I thought, why not for myself?” she said, noting that she has never really needed more than two to five hours’ sleep a night. She had met then-budding chef John Toulze, now her company’s managing partner and executive chef, at Viansa, so she grabbed him and went looking for a restaurant of her own. With a loan from her two brothers, she was able to open the first girl & the fig, in a 42-seat former pizza parlor in Glen Ellen.

“I had one Chardonnay, one Cabernet Sauvignon, and one Zinfandel to offer, since I had no money for a full wine list,” she recalled. “And I opened with a cheese bar at a time when only high-end places like Gary Danko were doing that. But how could we not show off Sonoma products? I fed people cheeses as they waited for tables, so they could taste how good they are.”

The bistro was a success from day one, and three years later, Bernstein was offered her dream spot, in the historic 1879 Sonoma Hotel on Spain Street where the girl & the fig packs in crowds today.

“The new hotel owners were my customers, with no experience in restaurants. I was in the cafe dining room when they told me they wanted me, and I literally screamed,” she said with a laugh.

Quite quickly, however, she learned that her entrepreneurship would have plenty of hurdles, as she gambled with culinary ideas, spread herself thin with retail marketing concepts and navigated both fickle customers and a fickle economy.

Her plan was to open a Latin American tapas place called The Girl & the Gaucho, but the hotel owners insisted she stick with her own already popular cuisine. So she revamped the Glen Ellen space, instead, for the Gaucho idea. It lasted two and a half years, before she switched back to her signature cuisine, and what is now fig café. “People really did want Wine Country food,” she said. “Even though I do French, it’s country French, and so local that it’s really Sonoma.”

By this time, Toulze had kicked her out of the kitchens. Looking for more to do, Bernstein opened a girl & the fig on the Petaluma waterfront. That lasted 15 months.

“We did all kinds of demographic studies beforehand, but it never really took off,” Bernstein recalled. “Petaluma then was a coupon-early bird market, and discounting would have hurt our brand.”

This, and the Gaucho experience, led to another Bernstein mantra.

“I never focus on bad news,” she said. “Creativity makes you vulnerable, because people let you know right away if they like it or don’t. So you’ve got to just keep trying.”

Other short-lived endeavors included Figment in Glen Ellen, a shop selling her branded gourmet food products. But the space cost too much, and walk-in traffic was too slow. She and Toulze took over The Cottages of Old Sonoma bed-and-breakfast and its on-site deli in 2006, but in 2008, a drunk driver crashed into her Fig Pantry deli, abandoning his car amid the shattered gourmet food cases. Rather than rebuild, Bernstein sold the entire property.

“I took it as a sign,” she said. “It was hard to make money with the deli, since the cases always had to be completely full and beautiful and with restaurant-quality food. It was a lot to sell every day, so the staff ate really well.”

That same year, Bernstein took over operations for the historic The General’s Daughter in Sonoma and, looking back to her Viansa roots, turned it into an Italian-accented estate restaurant featuring produce from the property’s large gardens.

“Three weeks later, the economy tanked,” she said. “I had to lay off people. I could have stayed, I think, but it made more sense to finally hand it off (when the property was sold) in 2012.”

Not one to languish, Bernstein immediately jumped into a Kickstarter campaign to open yet another enterprise, Suite D, a space next to her catering kitchen on Schellville Road off Eighth Street East in Sonoma. She built it out into a commissary for her retail products, plus space for catering events, wedding tastings and pop-up dinners to honor legends like Julia Child and Paul Prudhomme and various local winemakers.

Last year, she and Toulze rolled out the fig rig, a food truck offering global bites like kimchee hot dogs, pork-beef chile fries, a shrimp po’boy and a ramen burger. The idea came from a team retreat at a Sonoma winery, where staff dreamed up ideas for new ventures. The inventive menu comes from her team of chefs, who like to create casual favorites for staff meals. Naturally, it also features Bernstein’s signature fig and chèvre salad, plus her confit.

“It’s easy, like catering,” she said of the faux wood panel-trimmed truck that makes appearances at wineries, state park events and its home base, the Lanning Building.

“Yes, I’ve closed more than I’ve opened,” she said of her career so far. “But I’ve always tried to bring all my staff along for the next adventure. It’s not rocket science; we’re just feeding people, but we try to feed people’s souls and energy, and give them a place to turn off the world for a few hours. I really want us all to be kind, warm and genuine, and I never want to take success for granted.”

ANNIVERSARY PARTY
For the “Fig-iversary” gala on Sunday, August 20, Bernstein is thinking in her signature ambitious style. Some 600-plus guests are anticipated for the gathering on the Sonoma Plaza, which will be set with long, communal tables.

Celebrating some of the girl & the fig’s most popular dishes, the menu will feature long-standing classics that have been customer favorites since she first opened her original
restaurant in Glen Ellen.

The supper is also a fundraiser, with 50 percent of the $75 ticket purchases being donated to charities guests can select, including Pet’s Lifeline, La Luz Center, the Sonoma Valley Community Health Center, the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation, and Bernstein’s own Sonoma FIG Foundation. Tickets are available to the public here453 First St. E., Sonoma, thegirlandthefig.com

The “Fig-iversary” menu:

Local Artisan Cheeses and House-Crafted Charcuterie with marinated olives, pickled vegetables, FIGfood condiments, Figcake, baguette.

Heirloom Radishes from Farmer Friends (including the Fig Farm) local butter and sea salt

Fig & Arugula Salad toasted pecans, Laura Chenel chèvre, roasted pancetta and fig-port vinaigrette

Crispy Duck Confit from girl & the fig’s 1997 menu with puy lentils, cabbage, mustard vinaigrette

Vegetarian Entrée Option on Request

Fig Crisps, Brownies, Blondies, Cookies baked in the fig kitchens

Rhône Wines from local winemakers

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