Five weeks of smoke and ash proved to be the final blow to downtown Santa Rosa restaurant Bollywood, which marked its last day in business Friday after months of reduced service amid pandemic restrictions.
Owner Sonu Chandi of Chandi Hospitality Group said that despite encouraging patio dining for several months, ongoing prohibitions on indoor dining coupled with an early and prolonged fire season made the Fourth Street restaurant a losing proposition.
“We tried, we really went out of our way, and Bollywood was a successful concept that people loved, but the odds were just against us,” said Chandi. “You can’t eat inside and then you can’t be outside. What do you do?”
The upscale Indian eatery was an homage to the Chandi family’s Indian roots and a restaurant their patriarch had planned to open himself six years ago in Santa Rosa. It had reached its two-year milestone just days before the closure announcement Thursday and was part of a portfolio of downtown restaurants owned by the Chandis, including Stout Brothers on Fourth Street and Mercato Pasta and Produce (formerly Bibi’s Burger Bar) on Third Street which both closed this year.
The Chandis closed County Bench, their previous restaurant in the Fourth Street space, to make way for Bollywood.
Another Chandi venture, Beer Baron, is a joint project with Bay area restaurateurs Harpreet and Manraj Judge and will remain open. Chandi said that property is doing well.
Bollywood joins a growing list of Sonoma County food establishments that have closed since March in a nightmare year for restaurants. Bistro 29, Acre Coffee, Bruno’s and Whole Pie folded in Santa Rosa, Tisza Bistro and Jaded Toad were shuttered in Windsor and Brass Rabbit in Healdsburg, Osteria Stellina in Point Reyes and Whisper Sisters in Petaluma have all closed.
“It remains very challenging for our restaurants to stay open without indoor dining. They’ve been hit again and again this year between the pandemic and the fires and having to constantly shift their business models to accommodate,” said Cadance Allinson, executive director for Santa Rosa’s Downtown District, an affiliate of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber. “We’re doing everything we can to try and keep them going and encourage our community to support them however they’re most comfortable ― whether dining outdoors or ordering takeout.”
In Sonoma County, restaurants continue to pay sky-high rents ― challenging enough before the pandemic, but untenable for many as public health restrictions continue to curb business and federal disaster loans dry up.
While Chandi declined to discuss specifics about the monthly lease cost for Bollywood, he said that finding creative solutions to rent issues should be a high priority for landlords. “Many more restaurants will close if they don’t,” he said.
On the income side, Bollywood’s revenue was down more than half from 2019, hampered by coronavirus restrictions that began in March and the fires that erupted first in August and continue to burn. Chandi said that last year the restaurant grossed more than $1.48 million. For the same period this year, they grossed around $600,000 — not enough to keep up the lease and cover other overhead, he said.
“We’ve pushed hard to keep it going, and the whole team put so much effort in but we’re dealing with labor challenges and inconsistent revenue,” Chandi said.
Chandi said his family’s hospitality group has sustained itself with its diversified holdings, including eight Mountain Mike’s pizza restaurants in Sonoma and Mendocino County and franchise management of more than a dozen others. Chandi said another Mountain Mike’s is in development in Cloverdale.
The built-in, quick-service delivery model for pizzerias has boosted that business during the pandemic. QSR magazine, a restaurant industry publication, reports that 61% of Americans have ordered pizza delivery during the pandemic.
In comparison, low-margin, high-overhead restaurants with large staffs are a bigger risk. Chandi said the family business expanded into that sector because he has long been a cheerleader for the downtown Santa Rosa restaurant scene and wanted to add to the quality and vibrancy with unique, locally owned eateries.
“With these (downtown) restaurants we’ve gone out of our comfort zone as entrepreneurs because we thought they’d be a great addition to the local restaurant scene, but obviously, these were going to be the most challenged ones,” he said, referring to the pandemic.
The closure of Bollywood is especially emotional for the family. Prior to opening the restaurant, the family had operated the space as County Bench, a high-end California-style restaurant with a large selection of wine. When that concept flagged, the family turned to their roots.
Chandi patriarch Gurcharan Singh Chandi spent nearly two decades as the owner of an Indian restaurant in Walnut Creek and in 2014 planned to open a restaurant called Monsoon in downtown Santa Rosa. The restaurant never panned out, and the family tested the waters with a popular “secret” Indian menu at Bibi’s Burger Bar before opening Bollywood. The Chandis hired high-profile Miami chef Niven Patel to create the original Bollywood menu.
For now, Chandi isn’t saying a final goodbye to the Bollywood concept.
“I envision Bollywood will come back. I truly think we built something special, with a future. When and where time will tell,” he said.