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Surviving Fires, Floods and Pandemic, Sonoma Restaurateurs Offer Lessons in Resilience

Forced to make changes, local restaurateurs found some silver linings and adapted their business models into successful programs they continue to embrace today.

Sonoma County’s restaurant scene has changed dramatically since 2017. First came the Northern California wildfires. Then came more fires, and floods, and near-constant power outages, and COVID closures, and staffing shortages, and supply chain woes. It’s amazing that any restaurants survived the past five years.

Yet after many pivots, some restaurants actually thrived. Forced to make changes, the owners found some silver linings and adapted their business models into successful programs they continue to embrace today. Here are a few of those stories.

Fork Roadhouse

When Sarah Piccolo opened her Sebastopol business eight years ago, she was primarily a caterer. But people loved her food so much that she soon morphed her fledgling venture into a full-service restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Then came fires, road closures and nearly week-long power outages, which resulted in massive food spoilage and forced Piccolo to place employees on furlough.

Owner/chef Sarah Piccolo at Fork Roadhouse on Bodega Avenue, east of Sebastopol. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

After COVID hit, she had to make a tough decision. “It proved too difficult to continue,” she said. “We were finding ourselves overwhelmed and understaffed.”

So this past summer, Piccolo returned to catering, offering only limited brunch service at her restaurant, while hosting pop-ups, concerts, weddings, rehearsal dinners and other events on the patio. She also put her food truck into more active duty.

Then, in mid-November, she canceled all restaurant service and announced she was closing Fork.

“The cost of goods is too high,” she said. “So I’m going to Baja for a month, to regroup and think about carving out my next chapter.”

But don’t count Piccolo out. She already has plans for a new venture, coming this spring. Her catering business remains very busy and she wants to lend out the Fork space for a community kitchen and more pop-ups.

Baja will be a creative time, she noted. She earned a scholarship to the Modern Elder Academy there. Founder Chip Conley helps people restart their careers, through workshops and sabbaticals addressing students who generally are between 45 and 65 years old.

“It’s full circle,” she said. “It’s scary, but exciting. Stay even more tuned for what the next reincarnation of the roadhouse will be.”

Details: 9890 Bodega Hwy., Sebastopol, 707-634-7575, forkcatering.com.

Boon Eat + Drink and Brot

Crista Luedtke is used to challenges. The talented chef and innkeeper owns and operates Boon restaurant, Brot modern German restaurant and Boon Hotel + Spa, all in Guerneville. She also is involved in numerous other hospitality projects around Sonoma County. She caters, contributes to dozens of charitable organizations and has appeared on many culinary TV programs.

But all the disasters of the past five years took their toll.

“It was a long haul for sure,” she said. “We started with fires, then the big 2019 flood that nearly destroyed Guerneville, then COVID, then more fires during COVID, and being evacuated from our town for nine days. It was an absolute nightmare and it almost made me throw in the towel.”

But she kept going, relying on her business partners to handle copious amounts of paperwork for the Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loan applications, as well as other COVID-related business grants.

“I was so tired of pivoting, so over the start-stop-start, having to re-imagine my businesses. If it weren’t for my amazing team, I would have likely given up,” she said.

Chef Crista Luedtke at her restaurant Brot in Guerneville. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)

Ultimately, things worked out, as Luedtke streamlined on-site services, expanded al fresco dining in a Boon Eat + Drink garden and upped catering efforts.

“Some of these became lasting changes for the better, and helped optimize the businesses,” she said. “Staffing has been and continues to be the biggest challenge — I think some of that is a trickledown effect of housing shortages.”

For the slower winter season, Luedtke is shutting Brot down and will relaunch it in March. The restaurant space near Boon on Main Street will be available, however, for private dinners, corporate buyouts and pop-ups.

Details: Boon Eat + Drink, 16248 Main St., Guerneville, 707-869-0780, eatatboon.com.

Sweet T’s Restaurant + Bar

On Oct. 9, 2017, the Tubbs fire reduced Dennis and Ann Tussey’s beloved Sweet T’s Restaurant + Bar to ashes and molten metal. The fire took with it nearly six years of the couple’s hard work, their livelihoods and jobs for their 71 employees.

But just over a year later, the couple was building a new Sweet T’s in Windsor, finding hope amid the disaster. And as it turned out, the new spot is a blessing. They were able to add a new wood-fired grill alongside their new smoker, amped up their catering and discovered an eager audience for takeout.

“We managed to hang on to most of our staff throughout the pandemic because we never completely shut down more than a day or two at a time,” Ann said of the pivot.

Sweet T’s Restaurant & Bar owners Ann and Dennis Tussey, center, along with working partner George Ah Chin, left, and manager Robert Zenobi, right, at the site of their new Windsor location before construction was completed. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

In fact, the couple recently took over a neighboring space in Windsor’s Lakewood Village and are close to completing a build-out specifically to handle catering and takeout. Ironically, life is better for the Tusseys these days.

“Sales are back to pre-pandemic numbers, but we’re now open six days a week instead of seven,” Ann said. “Mondays are a day to work on administrative projects, decompress and schedule any type of restaurant repairs. I can’t see myself going back to seven days a week now, as there is something about letting the restaurant rest for one day and staff having that day off to recoup.”

Details: 9098 Brooks Road South, Windsor, 707-687-5185, sweettssouthern.com.

Willi’s Wine Bar

For 15 years, the Santa Rosa roadhouse packed in crowds for its eclectic small plates and craft cocktails. Then, the Tubbs fire demolished the 1886 building. Exactly a year to the day later, owners Mark and Terri Stark opened Willi’s 2.0 in Santa Rosa’s Town & Country neighborhood.

The Starks own six other restaurants locally, but reopening Willi’s was a particularly special moment.

“Retaining our staff was the most challenging after the fire,” said Terri. “Thankfully, we found homes for everyone who wanted to move to another of our restaurants.”

Mark and Terri Stark in the dining room at Stark’s Steak & Seafood in Santa Rosa. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

The Starks also were able to upgrade to a new kitchen and install the only items that were salvageable from the wreckage, the scorched Willi’s Wine Bar sign and an old horseshoe that was on the back door when they first moved in.

The joy would be short-lived.

“Moving Willi’s to a new location proved to be a little tougher than we anticipated,” Terri recalls. “It is in a different neighborhood and a bit off the beaten track. Then, we only had eight months to get established again, and then COVID shut us down.”

But the couple had retained all of their Willi’s managers during the shutdown.

“We have a core group of long standing staff members that we consider family,” Terri said. “They were extremely loyal during COVID, and came back to work as soon as possible.”

Details: 1415 Town and Country Dr., Santa Rosa, 707-526-3096, starkrestaurants.com.

Mateo’s Cocina Latina

After 10 years of feeding guests his distinctive Yucatán-French fusion cuisine, chef Mateo Granados bid farewell to his Healdsburg restaurant in August. Since 2017, he had been challenged by the region’s wildfires, floods, power outages and, finally, COVID shutdowns that affected not only his restaurant, but his catering business, too.

Staffing shortages became serious. And when negotiations on a drastic rent increase for the restaurant space collapsed in 2021, it was the last straw. Keeping the operation going no longer made financial sense, Granados said.

Mateo Granados. (Sonoma Magazine)

The good news is that his catering business is now booming. Sometimes he collaborates with other top chefs in the area, including former Farmhouse Inn Michelin star talent Steve Litke, to handle significant events for private parties, wineries and fundraising galas.

“I control my time, now,” he said, noting that he gets to spend much more time with his family, and is also the proud papa to a new Belgian Malinois pup. He has installed a large culinary garden at his Dry Creek home, is raising livestock for his farm-to-table cooking and “actually gets to sleep like a normal person.”

He still gets to be as creative as he likes with his food and wine menus, and can forecast his income much more reliably than in the past.

“The restaurant industry is changing,” he said. “It’s time for me, now.”

Details: mateoshealdsburg.com.

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