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Fremont Diner Was a Victim of Its Own Success, Say Owners

One of Wine Country’s most popular pitstops unexpectedly closed its doors last Wednesday.

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.

Instagram post from the Fremont Diner's @thefremontdiner page.
Instagram post from the Fremont Diner’s @thefremontdiner page.

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.

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50 thoughts on “Fremont Diner Was a Victim of Its Own Success, Say Owners

  1. So Bummed. Went to stop by for the best Chicken and waffles in the valley and found they closed. I guarantee it wasn’t due to lack of business. This spot was incredibly popular. A wait to be seated was always expected and delivered.

    We lost a treasure

  2. We stopped to eat there years ago. Apparently, it was at the time of day when they had a limited menu…between lunch and dinner. So they had some chili to offer us and it tasted like they just opened a can from the grocery store.
    Then I had to wait in the ladies room bathroom line at least 20 minutes. I can’t even imagine how long the line would be during the busy hours.
    I suppose we should have tried it again, during meal hours, but that experience was terrible. Just couldn’t do it.

  3. Running a business is hard! Maybe the owners felt overwhelmed and actually couldn’t make ends meet financially. It could be a case where they didn’t have enough customer throughput to offset their costs. Or maybe there was some pending lawsuit against them or some other personal reason(s).

    But the official reason they gave for the closure makes no sense.

    1. Actually it makes all the sense in the world. The restaurant business requires a lot more work than most people realize. A lot goes on behind the scenes that customers don’t see. There is the bookkeeping, the purchasing, the scheduling and all of this has to be done while covering shifts for people that don’t show up. I’ve been in the restaurant business for close to 40 years and for 21 years have owned a diner in Sonoma County and it’s gotten very hard to find staff. The big challenge came several years ago when the casino went in in Rohnert Park and now restauranteurs are forced to compete with Uber and Lyft for young people that can stand the pressures of restaurant work. No, I get it. The owners were likely very successful but just needed some time off.

    2. Their employees flaked and they had to cover too many shifts. Too hard with small kids. There is no housing in the valley for workers anymore. It’s all Airbnb and unaffordable.

  4. They just redid the whole patio. Why wpuld they do that, then close? Why not sell the concept. It was turn key. Dumb. I’ll miss that place. Best food ever.

  5. I have nothing but great memories from Fremont Diner and wish the owners further success in their future endeavors.

    1. Best diner ever!! I have become gluten and dairy free over the past few months. Maybe they can accommodate some dietary restrictions in the future for all to enjoy!! ❤️

  6. These comments are INSANE. People that have absolutely have no idea what it is like to own a restaurant and just putting their two cents on something they don’t even KNOW the full story on. Have a little compassion for these guys, they worked their asses off for the past 10 years for you guys. Sorry you can’t get you biscuits anymore. But everyone deserves to have a life outside of their workplace… what about their family? Obviously it wasn’t an easy decision to close down a successful restaurant but isn’t that worth having a better quality of life? Also pay attention to the ACTUAL employee who commented down there. Does there seem to be any spite or hatred towards these so called “scum of the earth” owners? Shame on you guys.

    1. um, owned a few but this released statement makes ZERO sense.

      1. can ‘t sustain this with staffing or our time
      yet
      2. still going to reopen and still going forward with another spot at the 76 station!!!!!

      talk about staffing, workload, and spreading it thin…the above two items makes zero sense

  7. Fremont Diner has been our go-to restaurant for years! Coming from a restaurant background, I respected how hard they hustled and the integrity that they infused in every item on the menu. Every morsel was delicious and the vibe was always crackling with excitement. It takes courage to make a move like this when you’re at the top of your game and there is no doubt that their next endeavor will be hugely successful and another asset to our community. Wishing them the very best and pledging nothing but future support!

  8. Hi Sonoma and Napa!!

    As a log time local, I am excited for change and reinventing ones self. The restaurant business is hard and I am very excited to see what Chad and Erika come up with next, They are awesome hardworking people that have brought a lot to the valley in a short time.
    I do hope the keep the chicken around, but anticipate nothing but great things coming from them and wish them nothing but the best! Be kind to people, Fremont will be missed and it was a great run.

  9. Yes to all the critical comments. Just to offer an other observation- as a freqeunt diner-they worked like demons all the time. They treated their staff with respect, kindness and acknolwledged good work by promtions. From what I observed they provided good working conditions and seeemd to understand the complexity of opertaing a successful business. By
    offering quality and creative food they sustained the business so that there were jobs throughout
    a difficult economic period. Finally by every aspect fo their behavior and business sense just closing does indeed seem strange. All we have are rumors and assumptions -I want to believe
    that some unusual occurence /emergency (financial or personal) precipitated the sudden closure. Remember that did create good self-respecting jobs and can and will do so again.

    1. I have eaten at Fremont a half dozen times. The last two times I dined there were in-doors where I witnessed the owner loudly berate a server with a full load of plates on her way out to a table. I let the first instance slide and stupidly I returned for my final visit and watched him harass one of the cooks with barbs and snide remarks and no this wasn’t just “kitchen culture” type behavior this was revolting BAD EMPLOYER behavior and terrible business practice. There are many accounts of his histrionics and poor treatment of employees both from diners and the employees themselves. Great food but not worth listening to him scream his face off and act like a raging idiot while degrading his staff. I hope this lifestyle change includes some self evaluation and significant changes in the way he runs his business and his mouth!

  10. There’s a vast difference between deciding to wrap up a business because one wants a new chapter and closing down suddenly, screwing over long time, loyal employees and customers. The employees who helped make that business sing are left twisting in the wind, wondering how to make rent. I will never support any endeavor by these selfish, self indulgent owners.

  11. To everyone commenting,
    Thank you for your thoughts and support…. It is true, that we closed. I am a server at the Fremont Diner, We had a staff meeting and were told that we were let go….. I, personally, kept walking out to the parking lot and letting people know that we were closed, there were alot of emotional conversations throughout the day …. As a staff we were drinking mimosas and sharing stories all day long.., There is alot of anger and talk of being mistreated…. It is an unfortunate situation and probably not at all an easy one to make…. We were a true Mom and Pop restaurant, and that Diner was a beast…, I loved working there and putting smiles on people’s faces and I have worked in places from coast to coast all my life. The Fremont was the best place that I ever worked at… And I let Chad and Erika know that yesterday…. It was an emotional day for “our restaurant family”.
    Thanks for coming in these past few years…
    Just wanted everyone know a glimpse from the inside. Cause I feel this heat is a bit misdirected. I appreciate you all.

    1. Thank you all, it was a great place and always wonderful service. I haven’t had the nerve to tell my British friends that the Diner is no more. They literally planned trips around eating there.

  12. I don’t know what it is about part-time restaurant owners in the Sonoma area that think they can get away with weird business hours and be successful. Rob’s Rib Shack, Cary’s, Babe’s Burgers, Divewalk Cafe, Mondo, Community Cafe, Grist Mill, Rossi’s, Rocket Sushi/Cafe, and now Fremont Diner. All places with great food, but great food doesn’t get it done. You need consistency, and business hours that apply to the greater needs of the locals, not what’s convenient to your lifestyle. Look at Picazo Cafe in El Verano for the blueprint on how to be a hit. When they first started everything was fresh, CHEAP, and fast. They worked their tails off, and as a result after several years its out the door all day, every day, and their killing it.

    Plain speak, you don’t get to own a restaurant AND have a life. People won’t wait around for you when they’re hungry. That’s the business.

  13. To Emily as Harris,

    You two are the scum of the Earth. You closed a successful restaurant that employed so many hard working people who were so dedicated to you. Long term employees who were loyal to you and in one day, you let them go with no warning. These people have to pay rent and/or mortgages, support their families, their kids education and just live paychecks to paychecks. In one stroke, you destroyed and disrupted so many lives.

    I for one would boycott any restaurant you open and give you Yelp negative reviews upon your new establishment. Your GREED is evident as your non caring nature for those you employ. Damn you both to Hell for what you have done for those that dedicated their commitment to the Fremont Diner.

    I hope your new restaurant fails in the worse way.

    1. As a cook, this is appalling. But I’ve seen it all now at least. Thanks rich aholes that come into where I’m from and screw over hardworking, talented people. I know a zillion people here and will never stop talking smack about what you did. Try opening another restaurant, just TRY IT

  14. If the ‘rumor mill’ is correct and you surprised your employees with the ‘good news’ they no longer have jobs…. then you don’t deserve to open another biz that requires employing people. Your shady business owners and I will never frequent any other establishments your greedy asses decide to open in the future!!! You have an obligation to compensate those employees who helped make your biz a success and lined your pockets with cash.
    Do the right thing owners!!!!!!! The best type of advertising is by word of mouth. Sonoma, being the small town that it is, people talk. Wouldn’t it be nice to have people remember the good things you did as opposed to being shady biz owners who could care less about it’s employees??!! Right now the way you’ve handled things say’s a lot about the type of people you are.

    1. I agree with your statement except where you call this a “rumor mill.” The journalist has stated, “We report what we know to be true. There are many, many, MANY other rumors floating around, but this is what we can confirm.” Therefore, confirmed!

    2. Two family friends of mine went there yesterday to try to eat and said they got there and there were employees who were standing outside waiting to start their shift and no one came to open up the restaurant. They said the employees were very confused about what was happening. I get wanting to start the next chapter but to treat the employees like that and to blind side them is flat out wrong.

  15. Darn, missed eating there! It was so popular, we were told that the wait for a table was at least an hour.

    It *totally sucks* that they didn’t give advance notice to their employees. Thanks to that egregious action (Chad and Erika Harris, I’m talking to you!), I will not patronize any business of theirs in the future!!

  16. Such a shoddy way to treat the employees! We liked the diner very much but will not be patronizing any new business these two open. No integrity whatsoever.

  17. Not a fan of business owners who don’t respect their hard-working employees. I won’t go to the new location until I hear that they compensated their staff well for the layoff without notice.

    1. Who just shows up one day and says “we are closing today!” What a jerk thing to do and it shows the dark side of his personality and frankly a disrespect to his customers as well.

  18. That’s a shame about the Broadway location. Displace a long time Auto Repair business and Gas Station in order to create more tourist traffic on an already busy intersection. What about the lot across the street that has been vacant for 10 years? The one iwth enough room for on-site parking?

    1. That property is slated for housing. The merchants in the Plaza don’t want any business on Broadway to interfer with their livelyhood…..

  19. Thanks Chad! It was a great place, especially with a seat at the counter. He would trade me a breakfast for a big handful of chanterelles. Great C&W tunes on the playlist too.

  20. The real story here is that local workers have lost their jobs by trite, selfish owners who think Sonoma needs more quaint. retro attractions and ” fresh food concepts” to satisfy their whims. What a way to support your community by putting struggling workers out of work without the courtesy of notice. Real small town attitudes from these Ozzie and Harriets. Yeah, I can’t wait to see what they grace the valley with next.

  21. Harris and his wife, Erika, announced plans to open a second restaurant in the town of Sonoma in 2017, purchasing a .56 acre lot that currently houses the Union 76 gas station at 899 Broadway at MacArthur St. Maybe they are ready to work on that project now.

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