A week after the surprise closure of one of Wine Country’s most beloved roadside restaurants, the Fremont Diner owners opened up about their decision to shutter the space as well as plans for the future.
The husband-wife owners Chad and Erika Harris said the diner had been a victim of its own success, with demand quickly outgrowing both the space and staffing.
“It was incredibly successful to those who visited, but the model was hard to sustain,” owners said in an email Tuesday.
A culinary media darling since opening in 2008, the funky diner was lauded by Oprah magazine, Gywneth Paltrow’s Goop and Food & Wine magazine, which named it one of the best diners in America. An Instragram-worthy menu with the couple’s comfort food dishes gave them even more cachet, as diners from around the world ventured to the cozy country cafe.
Halfway between the Sonoma and Napa valleys off Highway 121, the Fremont Diner oozed nouveau decrepitude with a heavy dose of John Deere chic and the irresistible lure of a butter and pork-soaked menu. Selling charming local jams, sauces and coveted Rancho Gordo beans, it was a must-do on many Wine Country itineraries, but also had a pull-up-a-chair vibe that regularly brought in locals.
However, the couple said they often found themselves covering multiple shifts day in and day out with the diner, something they say was difficult to sustain, especially with small children at home. Facing ongoing short-staffing, which has plagued the Wine Country restaurant industry especially since last year’s wildfires, the couple decided it was time to shutter.
The Harrises own the Fremont Diner location, which they ultimately plan to revamp.
“Closing the diner is truly a lifestyle choice at this point, and a chance to create something fresh and new for our community; we’re not done quite yet,” said Chad Harris, the restaurant’s chef.
He said it was a decision for their family, first and foremost.
Their 13 full-time and 17 part-time employees were notified about the diner’s closure early June 27, which set off a frenzy of social media questions when visitors found the breakfast and brunch spot locked and two orange traffic cones blocking the door. Looking for the legendary chicken and waffles that made this former hot dog stand a well-known destination, they knocked to no avail.
Questions about the restaurant’s future then began emerging on Facebook posts. When staff took to social media seeking new employment, even more questions emerged.
Though the Harrises were mostly mum last week, they now say employees who were present at a meeting about the closure spent the remainder of the morning and afternoon reminiscing over beverages. They said they’re supporting staff in finding new positions in the Valley.
“The Fremont Diner began as an endeavor to reimagine the good food and nostalgic atmosphere of classic American diners. Over the past ten years our plans for the future have taken shape with the Diner — as have our personal and family goals — and so today we are closing the doors on what we consider to be a very successful chapter,” the owners said in the email.
Erika Harris said the response to the closure has been overwhelming, but they also have received support for a plan to reopen the diner space with a fresh food concept that will “allow us to bring people together, live life to the fullest and do both over a really good meal.”
They’re also moving forward on a project in downtown Sonoma, but don’t have a timeline, yet.
In 2017, Harris and her husband announced plans to open a second restaurant in Sonoma after purchasing a half-acre lot currently housing the Union 76 gas station at 899 Broadway. The city planning commission last year approved their application to make significant renovations to the site that could include a 52-seat restaurant and nanobrewery.
“We are still working on the gas station and are waiting on environmental clean up to be finished before we can proceed,” Erika Harris said.
The same day the restaurant closed, a sign at the gas station confirmed, “Gas business closing down for good limited hours now ’til June 30.” Signs for Union 76 were being removed as well.
“We are so grateful to all of the customers, supporters, staff, and friends who have reached out about the closure in the past week,” Erika Harris said. “We have been heartened to hear so many good stories and an outpouring of memories from those who shared a meal with us and worked alongside us over the years.
“We look forward to creating something in the future that not only sustains us, but can once again serve those who have supported us along the way,” she added.
Writer Sarah Stierch contributed to this article.