Steele and Hops in Santa Rosa to close, latest casualty of pandemic-era business decline for local restaurants

The restaurant was especially affected by SRJC’s decision to continue with mostly remote instruction through the 2021-22 year.|

Steele and Hops, the Santa Rosa restaurant that carved out a niche for offering high-quality pub grub, as well as beers from its own brewery, will close its business after six years on July 3.

“Even though we know Steele and Hops is in its best hour yet, there is a business side that must be met. We have never made it back to our pre-pandemic numbers. There is a timeline that’s unfortunately based on math, not passion or even effort, to how long you can keep going without the sales to support it,” owners Chase and Jonnie Williamson wrote in an Instagram post announcing the decision.

The restaurant employs about 25 people.

In an interview, Chase Williamson said Steele and Hops was hampered like other restaurants with shelter-in-place rules put in place after the past two years that curtailed on-site dining -- despite receiving assistance through the federal Paycheck Protection Act and other aid to restaurants.

But the restaurant was especially affected by Santa Rosa Junior College’s decision to continue to do mostly remote learning through the 2021-22 year. That’s because Steele and Hops is located nearby in the 1900 block of Mendocino Avenue, Williamson said.

In spring 2021, 93% of courses were virtual, and last semester 61% were remote, a SRJC spokesperson told The Press Democrat earlier this month.

“We were basically always trying to hang in there until the JC opened up,” Williamson said, as to-go orders were not as profitable as those who dined at the restaurant.

Steele and Hops would generate its largest revenue when students would return for the fall semester, and that activity would carry on into the holiday season through the end of the year, Williamson said.

“That really is the money that puts you over the top for profitability,” he said.

Williamson added that he did not place blame on Dr. Frank Chong, the community college’s president, or other for the decision to close the business. The couple have two children and couldn’t envision putting more of their personal finances into the business, which also had his parents and a family friend as other investors.

The business also was hampered by the fact that it didn’t start to offer its own beers ― which could have provided another source of revenue ― until November 2019. The beer full lineup was launched in mid-March 2020, just as the pandemic struck, Williamson said.

As restaurants and breweries ramp up this summer, he struck a cautionary note on whether there could be more closings as owners switch from contingency planning during a pandemic to long-range forecasts over the next couple of years.

“I know in my own circle, the people I talk to is that everybody is having a hard time,” he said.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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