Restaurants Fear Rotten Ramifications of PG&E Outages

Without powered refrigeration, Sonoma County restaurants could face serious trouble

Sonoma County restaurateurs are racing to prepare themselves for a proposed power outage that could have a devastating impact on their bottom line. At risk: Hundreds, if not thousands of pounds of refrigerated and frozen food that could quickly spoil if their electricity goes out for an extended amount of time.

That’s in addition to the potential revenue loss of having to close their doors for multiple days.

“We’re in the throes of this right now,” said Domenica Catelli, of Catelli’s in Geyserville. With just hours to go before what’s expected to be a significant outage throughout the county, she was scrambling to find some extra refrigerated space and canceling food orders.

“We’re reaching out to everyone we know,” said Catelli. “We’re looking at refrigerated trucks and downsizing what we have,” she said. Throughout the county, the race is on to prepare for what could be several days without power.

The timing, for many, couldn’t be worse. A lack of trained workers, still-slumping tourist revenue and the loss of entire neighborhoods that are still not-yet-rebuilt has taken a serious toll on the restaurant industry.

“This is really what everyone needs right now?” said restaurateur Terri Stark of Stark Reality Restaurants of the continued stress the industry has seen in the last 24 months.

“The timing of it is so eerie and I’m on edge,” she said.

PD File Photo
PD File: A chef preps food by candlelight in 2002.

All but one of the six restaurants Stark owns with her husband, Chef Mark Stark, are in proposed outage areas from Healdsburg to Santa Rosa. Her own home is also in one of the zones and Willi’s Wine Bar was among a handful of restaurants that burned in the 2017 wildfires two years ago.

Stark said they’re currently packing their walk-ins with dry ice. Walk-ins are large refrigerated rooms, that range from closet-sized to hundreds of square feet and are imperative for keeping perishable food at safe temperatures.

Stark’s Steakhouse near Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square will be their base of operations if the power goes out.  “The Steakhouse will be open and we think we may be pretty busy because people need a place to eat if there’s no power. But we’re just gonna take this one step at a time. We have a huge walk-in there and we can move whatever food to use at that location,” she said.

Stark, along with other restaurateurs say the large refrigeration units typical in restaurants will hold the temperature for up to a day or longer if they remain unopened. But once the refrigeration temperature hits 40 degrees most perishable food like meat or produce, have to be discarded.

“It could be a total loss. If the power is down, we’ll cancel all our orders for the morning, but it’s gonna be touch and go,” she said.

“I’m making sure I’ve got gas in my generator,” said John Franchetti, of Franchetti’s Gasthaus. Though his Dutton Ave. location isn’t currently on a map of planned outage areas, he’s planning for the worst. In 2017, his restaurant was closed for 15 days while wildfires raged.

“If we have power, I’m going to be open,” said Franchetti.

In Glen Ellen, Ari Weisswasser said his restaurant, Glen Ellen Star, has a busy weekend planned, and he’s not planning to close if he can help it. “Look, I’ve done this before,” said Weisswasser, whose restaurant was perilously close to fires that devastated the surrounding area in 2017. “It would take an earthquake to shut us down. I’m staying open. I’ve done this before and I can do it again,” he said.

In Healdsburg, Dustin Valette said he supports the preventative measures being taken by PGE, though it could seriously affect his businesses. Valette’s father, Bob, is an active duty Cal Fire tanker pilot so the potential for wildfires hits close to home.

“We fully support preventative measures to help save the lives and homes throughout Sonoma County,” he said. “We feel that taking a preventative approach far outweighs the negative effects. If there is a power outage, we will have to close for regular service, although we will be taking this on a case by case basis and plan on having regular service throughout the week,” he said.

Catelli said that despite the worries, the Sonoma County restaurant community is tight-knit and will stick together.

“What I know from what we’ve all been through the last two years is that we’ve gone through a lot and our community is strong,” she said.