Napa Valley Bistro - Survival of a Hidden Gem with Old Fashioned Values
By Carolynne Gamble -
Owning a restaurant during the pandemic is not for the faint of heart. Perseverance and resilience are key ingredients.
Meet Chef Bernardo Ayala, Co-owner of Napa Valley Bistro
What are the greatest challenges faced this past year? “It was the unpredictability,” admitted Chef Bernardo. “We didn’t know if we were going to be open or closed. When we were open, we didn’t know what the rules would be. Things were continually changing, and it is difficult to maintain a rhythm with so many ups and downs.”
Consider that fine dining cuisine doesn’t work well for take-out only. The fast food restaurants and the take-outs were thriving of course, but white tablecloth restaurants like Napa Valley Bistro were struggling.
“We had a whole crew working like a well-oiled machine, and then we had to close,” continued Chef Bernardo. “Everything broke down. All systems fell apart. Some employees changed careers and did not return, plus I was constantly worried about employees getting sick.”
“I was not so worried about losing local customers because we have a very local, loyal clientele here. I was frustrated. Not with customers. Not with employees. Like 100% of the people around the world, I was worried. But at the same time, I was grateful because we were still alive.”
Parklets to the Rescue
As it turns out, the outdoor parklet was the lifesaver, not only for the business, but also it saved jobs for the employees. The employees are like Chef Bernardo. They would rather come to work than stay home and draw unemployment. They all preferred to work, produce and be happy.
“The parklet process was very complicated in the beginning,” reported Chef. There were many restrictions, but then a helpful Napa City employee guided him to develop a plan. He drew up a design and hired Francisco Ramirez Construction to build it. Craig Smith with Downtown Napa Association extended good advice as well.
“Our parklet looks so good,” reported Manager Clay Brandl. “We partnered with Pizza Azzurro, and built adjacent to each other. It was cheaper to build one large parklet, rather than have separate designs.”
Will the parklets remain? Customers love dining outside! There is tremendous local and tourist support, plus the restaurants love it. “We hope to keep it because time and money were invested, and customers say they want them to stay,” reported Chef Bernardo.
The restaurant and hospitality industries are facing “short staff” challenges. Many restaurant employees decided to change careers, and are not returning to work.
“We are not suffering like others,” offered Chef. “We are okay. We have very loyal employees, and many have been with us for five years.”
“Did you need to change the menu for outside seating?” I asked. They did adjust a little to be more practical, but not drastically.
Commitment to Sustainability
The restaurant opened in 2013 with a vision to focus on local wines, and serve fresh, sustainable, Napa Valley cuisine with Latino influence. The organic produce comes from small, local vendors: Lynne Rodgers Cherish Market Gardens and Cindy Skinner Gardens. The organic herbs come from Chef Bernardo’s own garden.
Working with the Napa-Sonoma Small Business Development Center was crucial in those early days. Former Business Advisor Charlie Monahan helped with all the profit and loss projections, and current Business Advisor, Carolynne Gamble helped the business learn social media. “The P&L’s were the nuts and bolts for opening the restaurant,” commented Chef Bernardo. “This was key.”
Local Wine Focus
The wine list is another reason for their success. All the wines are local, and many come from Latino producers. Napa Valley Bistro is a small family owned restaurant and thus they highlight small family owned wineries. Wines by the glass are rotated because there are so many choices, and this provides a platform for emerging vintners to showcase their wine.
“We keep it fresh and fun for all the locals,” reported Manager, Clay Brandl. “The wine list is just like the menu. We focus on local and sustainable. You can enjoy Tuscan style wine made in California. You will find a Burgundy style Pinot Noir made in California, with a more tannic, earthly style.”
Napa Valley Bistro will soon roll out their own Napa Valley Cabernet house wine, produced by Bazan Cellars, with Chef Bernardo participating in the special blending process. Stay tuned!
So the tourists are back. The restaurant has survived and is busy again. It’s back to where it all began – a laid-back bar and restaurant offering locally sourced, sustainable, and organic food from Napa Valley.