A subset of all the people who recall the former Petrini’s Market near Santa Rosa’s Flamingo Hotel in the early 1980s is those who retain a mental image of the solicitous, clearly driven kid who looked to be mankind’s youngest grocery clerk.
That was Christopher Silva. Once you know how he got the job as a union checker at not yet 16, it’s hardly surprising that only a couple of decades later he gave up the life of a buttoned-up trial lawyer to grasp the challenge of running a pre-eminent Sonoma Valley winery.
Born in Petaluma into a deep-rooted Swiss-Italian dairy family, Silva was 15 and bike-delivering The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa’s Town & Country neighborhood when he set his sights on becoming a grocery bagger at the small-chain gourmet supermarket on Fourth Street.
One day in 1979 he approached manager Charlie Dooyes and asked to be hired. Silva can recall for you what time it was, what Dooyes wore and probably the ambient temperature and lunar phase.
Dooyes told him, “You’re too young.” So Silva did what any 15-year-old would do.
“I handed him a business card and I said, ‘Please call me if you have a job.’”
Silva recalls that the Petrini’s manager phoned him the next day to say, “I can’t believe a kid has business cards. Can you start on Saturday?”
Silva loved working at Petrini’s.
“One of my regular customers was Harry Morgan,” he said last week after a seemingly redundant second afternoon coffee at his office at outer Kenwood’s St. Francis Winery & Vineyards. Late Santa Rosa resident Morgan was the actor beloved for his TV roles as police officer Bill Gannon on “Dragnet” and as MASH’s Col. Sherman T. Potter.
Silva relished meeting and carting the groceries also of entrepreneur Henry Trione, journalist-historian Gaye LeBaron, former madame Sally Stanford, all sorts of compelling people. He remembers downtown character Pepper grabbing the checkstand microphone and yodeling over the store speakers.
Silva had been a bag boy only about six months and was still 15 when he asked to be promoted to checker. Of course Dooyes gave him the boost.
Silva remembers once coming to the manager with a mild complaint. The checkstands were to be wiped down regularly with ammonia, and he told Dooyes that disinfecting with the nasty stuff made the clerks’ eyes water.
Dooyes asked him, “Does it make your eyes water every time you use it?” Silva answered, “No.” The manager concluded the conversation with, “Then you’re not using enough.”
The young checker came to appreciate his boss’ commitment to cleanliness. A constant of Silva’s life has been his propensity to observe and take to heart the counsel and wisdom of those whose work ethics he admires.
That certainly goes for his late grandfather, Petaluma dairyman William Cassina. “He always said, ‘Every job is important. Respect everyone who works,’” Silva said.
All the time he worked at Petrini’s, Silva anticipated the occasional store visits by founder Frank Petrini, the demanding, almost regal immigrant who’d purportedly come to San Francisco with $5 in his pocket and whose enhancements to the grocery business included the lapel carnations that checkers wore on Saturdays.