By Lisa Adams Walter
Napa Valley Restaurants have not only been in the trenches for nearly a year, they have more movingly been in the foxhole for our community, fighting for all of us, and each other. The key to success in a foxhole is the ability to rely on others—you need to know that someone has your back.
While as a community, we have all been frustrated by the challenges and changes in our lives caused by disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic, it is well known that restaurants are one business sector that have been faced with mounting obstacles and suffered tremendous loss.
Over the years, whether it be a school fundraiser, a charity auction, or a campaign to support someone in need, the restaurants are repeatedly asked for donations of gift certificates, food, services, use of space and dine and donate nights. In the best of times, and even the worst of times, restaurateurs are caregivers and repeatedly step up to help those in need.
“After an amazing 2019, 2020 was probably the most challenging year of my entire career,” owner Justin Graffigna of Il Posto Trattoria said, “The pandemic lasted far longer than anyone anticipated and is still continuing. It posed so many difficulties and uncertainties no one was anticipating. Closing down to to-go food only, reopening outdoor, opening to 25%, then to 50%, back to outdoors, and finally back to takeout only. It’s been like a yo-yo, with lots of ups and lots of downs.”
“Every time we figure out what to do, and think, ‘hey this is cool, we’ve got this,’ it all changes,” said owner Chuck Meyer of Napa Palisades Saloon, referencing the ever-changing restrictions and allowances imposed upon restaurants. “Every situation is unprecedented, and as a restaurant, you don’t have a business model for it until you have done it for a few weeks—then you get a pattern, and then they change it.”
Every dining establishment has experienced the restrictions put in place for staff and customer safety. Creativity and reinvention of business has been paramount. Most now offer takeout or delivery, which adds to costs as to-go containers and packaging are pricey. Many have invested thousands of dollars to build expensive outdoor seating spaces—that sat vacant during the highest levels of shutdown. Some restaurants have followed closely in compliance, others have temporarily closed, while some have forever shuttered their doors.
Bettina Rouas of Angèle Restaurant and Bar reports that 2020 was the hardest year of her life, “The biggest challenge was figuring out what to do next to keep going and help my staff. 2021 unfortunately was not the start we had hoped, and we are still trying to figure out how to stay relevant and to stay positive.”
“Reflecting on the past ten—almost eleven—years of our restaurant, I can honestly say that the past 11 months were the most challenging of my career as a chef and a restaurant owner,” said chef and owner Tyler Rodde of Oenotri. “Nothing has threatened our existence like the shutdowns required by this pandemic.”
“Staying safe. Constantly adapting to ever-changing conditions. Keeping my team together and safe until we can reopen, again,” are some of the challenges chef and owner Ken Frank of La Toque restaurant cites.
Owner Fred Corona of Taqueria Rosita added, “COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the hospitality business, in particular, businesses that are involved in food and beverage. Between the shelter-in-place orders and the reduction in occupancy of our dining rooms, it’s killing all restaurants. Some will get by, but if your employees are not working, you kind of feel responsible for that. I see that 2021 will be more of the same. The restaurant business is hard enough and then you throw in a pandemic and wildfires, it becomes a grim situation.”
Pivoting from a full-service restaurant to takeout only was echoed by owner Thomas Finch of Filippi’s Pizza Grotto, “We have had to be creative in order to allow our staff to continue working in creative new jobs so that they can sustain their own livelihoods during this time. Many have chosen to leave the industry and the state as well. When we reopened, some staff did not want to return for fear of contracting the virus. This left us short staffed upon reopening. Then there was the challenge of getting the products needed because many of the factories and plants were also closed, leaving shortages in the industry.”
“The extended shelter-at-home guidelines over 2020, and now into 2021, require that business operators think and act differently to meet changing needs and demands across the community,” founder and owner Ben Koenig of Heritage Eats said, “This has broadly meant finding creative ways to serve locals more regularly at home, who are also handling their own new challenges. Many are juggling multiple responsibilities with work-from-home or adjusted working hours and virtual school. With the continued extension of shelter-in-place guidelines, personal habits and professional schedules have the potential to drastically change more permanently from pre-pandemic ways. All of this puts a high level of uncertainty on the future of any business, without strategic adjustments to future operations and marketing.”
“Besides what everybody else is dealing with, keeping our staff taken care of and making sure that they are able to provide for their families has been challenging,” according to Director of Operations Allison Hallum of Eiko’s and Napa Noodles, “We accomplished this by paying fair living wages above minimum wage. We also used our staff to freshen up the restaurant and work on deep cleaning and maintenance projects, giving them some hours to support their families while we are closed.”
Hallum, whose family owns both restaurants, also noted that they changed internal tipping procedures so that everyone could still pay their mortgage and put their kids through school. “We didn’t want their lives to be disrupted,” she added, “It was really about taking care of those that worked for us, so they could take care of the community which has been so supportive and giving this past year. Every time we gave back, the community gave back to us tenfold.”
The unknown future was also referenced within the challenges of 2020 and 2021 by owner Eric Keffer of Cole’s Chop House, “The uncertainty. You could change and pivot, but the decisions you make could have long-term ramifications. If you don’t change up your mindset, you won’t have a business to come back to. Another challenge is the changing dining culture, certain aspects after COVID will change. People will want more space between tables, and certain aspects of table service will have to be changed. The challenges that are unforeseen are the hardest to adapt to.”
Stretched thin and beleaguered, restaurateurs are faced with daily business decisions that include staff reductions, layoffs, supplier relations, safety and compliance. Most have had to make huge personal investments and sacrifices, realizing all along, the importance of their industry and the integral role that restaurants play within the county. Many Napa families employed by restaurants are in a tough spot. Our community is fragile, and the needs are high.
In response, the restaurant community has quietly banded together in the face of this seemingly unreal situation. Rather than duck and cover, the restaurants are continuing to give back.
Mick Salyer of La Taberna Napa and ZuZu said that even in these times of angst and loss, “We as restaurateurs feed people in mass and it is easy for us to step up and feed those in need. At the start of the pandemic, a group of restaurant folks got together to figure out the needs of our community, be it the laid off employees, all the way down to the homeless.”
“What you find in hospitality is people who are to their core, unsurprisingly, hospitable. It’s who we are, it’s in our DNA. We serve people. Whether it’s the pride and joy of cooking or serving others, bringing comfort and pleasure to others is what makes us tick,” said Chef Ken Frank, “Resilience is also in our DNA. In the best of times this is a difficult business, and we are a resourceful lot. So when the going gets tough, well, we’re pretty ready for that too. To be good at hospitality, you have to have a generous heart.”
Many restaurants are now connected to and an important part of the operating fabric of social services such as the South Napa Homeless Shelter, Feeding it Forward, Rainbow House, Feed Napa Now and The Salvation Army.
Chuck Meyer of Napa Palisades Saloon and First and Franklin Marketplace says that he thinks that restaurant owners, and especially in Napa, understand that in spite of everything that’s happened, are still fortunate to have this amazing community that has really stepped up. Meyer’s restaurants have supported many in need including Feed Napa Now, the Boys & Girls Clubs, Rainbow House, the COVID-19 testing site and The Salvation Army.
When Wendi Moore from the South Napa Homeless shelter called Ken Frank to ask if they could pick up another day to serve lunch, he realized that La Toque had an opportunity to do something positive at a terrible time. “That made the decision easy, and we committed to do all five days a week. My banquet department was and remains closed, we had the capacity, and we didn’t want to waste it. This community has been so good to us that we felt whatever we could do to help was just the right thing to do.” Now that other restaurants are participating, La Toque is covering two days per week.
To be able to cook gave Frank’s culinary team purpose, “Cooks live to cook, it’s what we do even when we’re not ‘working.’ And it felt really good to make a difference. It quickly became more too, as the community rallied around our efforts. We put a donation button for the shelter on the landing page of our website, and our friends contributed a huge sum to pay for the single-use supplies that the shelter had to use due to COVID precautions, as well as, supplement the food available from the Food Bank.”
Thomas Finch at Filippi’s continues to give, as this is the community that we live in and raise our children in. “We continue to support out first responders and COVID testers on an ongoing basis, because it’s the right thing to do.” Filippis also offers a 10% discount to first responders, provided food to the frontline during the wildfires, and fed his own staff and their families while they were out of work.
Taqueria Rosita has helped with Feed Napa Now, and according to Fred Corona, “In the beginning of the pandemic we were feeding staff at Queen of The Valley Hospital. We later helped out the COVID testing center volunteers for lunch for about a month. During the wildfires, we helped The Salvation Army with meals for all of our displaced neighbors. Doing these things feels great for me and my staff!”
Angèle reports that they have donated food to local shelters and fed the community during the fires, “Aside from the shelters, we have been raising money to help out our staff,” Bettina Rouas explained. They have developed a GoFundMe page on their website, all gratuities go to the staff, and the first week of sales went to their staff as well.
“I think it is important to always give back to the place I was born and raised,” said Justin Graffigna of Il Posto, “I’m not sure that I have denied a donation request that has been for our local community. Our outlook on the pandemic is that we are all in this together, so we have to help in any way possible. Although that sounds cliché, it’s the truth. I’d do anything for this community that has given us so much support, to me and to my business. What comes around goes around.” Il Posto has donated to various GoFundMe campaigns for people who lost homes during the fires, and provided meals for people who were displaced. The restaurant sent lunches to frontline workers, nurses and COVID testing staff. “During the pandemic we have continued to do Dine and Donates for various local organizations and schools. I feel it is important to always be involved in keeping our local community and economy afloat,” Graffigna added.
Pre-pandemic at Heritage Eats, the team—which in addition to Ben Koenig includes co-owner Ali Koenig and General Manager Charles Whittaker—enjoyed regularly planning Dine and Donates with local community groups, donating gift cards and food donations for events, and sponsoring youth sports leagues. “To continue to give back to the community as community needs have greatly increased,” said Ben Koenig, “We have developed a few restaurant programs including virtual Dine and Donates—meaning proceeds are donated from online orders, with food donations to the Boys & Girls Club, and most notably our Pay It Forward campaign. This evolved into a partnership with the community where folks could purchase a discounted meal from the restaurant, and we would donate food bundles to local frontline groups including the COVID testing site, local hospitals and others. We received a large donation from the local law firm Dickenson Peatman & Fogarty and were able to turn that around and serve over $5,000 in meals across the community.”
At Cole’s Chop House, Eric Keffer is clear about the reason that they give back, “It’s the right thing to do! It’s not about getting public recognition, it’s about showing our love to those that reside in our community. Also, to show our appreciation for what these individuals are doing to serve and support our community. It’s very humbling to live in a community where there’s a public outcry to support first responders and emergency service responders.” Cole’s has also supplied lunches to firefighters, fire victims, the Boys & Girls Club of Napa Valley, nursing homes and Queen of the Valley Hospital.
“The restaurants give back to the community because it is in our nature to serve those around us. We also give back because we know how important it is to have community support, especially in times like these,” Allison Hallum of Eiko’s added, “We live here, our kids go to school here, our friends and families have businesses here. I am so grateful for our community, and we are very quiet about our support, yet it is easy to give back to a community that is so supportive of the restaurant community.” Just as Eric Keffer said, Hallum added, “We just do it because it’s the right thing to do.” Eiko’s and Napa Noodles donated several meals to PG&E, first responders and COVID testing site volunteers, as well as, provided gift certificates to wildfire evacuees.
“Restaurants are built on the premise of nurturing people, and we love every opportunity we get to do that, whether it’s a regular dinner service in the dining room, a meal donation to Feed Napa Now, or a charity event for the Boys & Girls Club or Crush Napa Valley. We look forward to getting back to those days, but we continue to face a tremendous amount of unknowns. One thing is certain: we will only exist on the other side of this pandemic with the continued support of our local community,” said Tyler Rodde of Oentori.
Mick Salyer of La Taberna and ZuZu said, “We were quick to confer with Wendi Moore with Adobe Services and I moved forward to feed the homeless families at Rainbow House here in Napa. So ZuZu Wood Fired Paella, working with ZuZu tapas and La Taberna, picked up Fridays to help feed the mothers and kids at the Rainbow House with a paella dinner. We also fed the COVID testing crew weekly, the Boys & Girls Club and any ‘industry staff’ that needed a meal.”
When asked why restaurants are continuing to give, Salyer remarked, “This is such an interesting question as most restaurants are struggling to survive, but yet still, most every restaurant that I know is digging deep, deeper than their means, to help the people that have less. It is so indicative of our industry. We do far more than just serve food, it is about community, caring and hospitality.”
“There is enough food, the system just doesn’t deliver the last ¼ mile to many of the people in need. Everyone in this great country should have enough healthy, nutritious and tasty food to eat, period. Eliminating hunger is a solvable problem and needs to be a priority, said Ken Frank of La Toque, who gleans inspiration from Chef José Andrés founder of World Central Kitchen. “For the last few years, some of the most enlightened global moral leadership has come from a chef. I could not be more proud of him and am thrilled to do what I can in my own community. Chefs rock!”
“Many of our fellow restaurateurs may not recover from these closures,” Thomas Finch of Filippi’s stated, “All have saved money all of their lives to see their dreams come true. They leveraged their homes and borrowed money because of the joy of seeing a smile on the faces of the customers they serve. This is why we do what we do. Being in the restaurant business requires an unbelievable workload. Most work seven days a week to see their dreams come true.”
“Breaking even and working all these hours is not very self gratifying, but what is gratifying, is knowing that we were here for our community,” added Justin Graffigna of Il Posto.
“It’s touching to live in a community when so many businesses do this as the norm,” Eric Keffer of Cole’s Chop House added.
Speaking of his colleagues, Chuck Meyer of Napa Palisades concluded, “All of these people that are used to giving in abundance, they have been challenged throughout the pandemic. But these guys are still coming through, and they will continue to do so after all of this is done. Maybe even more so.”