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Yanni’s Sausage Grill serves final meal

Long before the doors opened at 11 a.m. Sunday at Yanni’s Sausage Grill in Penngrove, a tiny restaurant in a small town, faithful local fans already had lined up for the beloved cafe’s closing day.

And by 2 p.m. and about 130 sandwiches later, Yanni’s had run out of food.

The first customer in the door was Scott Gaynos, 71, who lives on Sonoma Mountain and has been a regular at Yanni’s since it opened eight years ago.

“I got a quart of their chili, because it’s my favorite,” Gaynos said. “I’m getting this for myself for the coming week, so it’ll last me for a while, because this is the last supper at Yanni’s.” Owners John “Yanni” Vrattos, 64, and his wife, Francesca, 65, are closing the restaurant to devote all of their time to their burgeoning wholesale sausage business.

Already, their customers include the Green Music Center’s cafe in Rohnert Park and the Lagunitas Brewing Co.’s Petaluma Taproom. Safeway has signed up to sell Yanni’s Sausages - there are eight different varieties - at some of its stores, and several local independent markets also will offer Yanni’s products.

“The day-to-day demand of the restaurant is taking its toll on us,” the Vrattoses explained in a sign posted on their display case.

From behind the counter in Yanni’s snug two-person kitchen, Francesca cheerfully added, “Standing up 10 hours a day for eight years is brutal!”

The rise of Yanni’s has become the stuff of local legend. John was a sales manager for Parisian Bread and Colombo Bakery in Oakland. Francesca was an office manager for a civil engineering firm in Santa Rosa. Then the recession hit.

“In 2009, we both lost our jobs and we lost our home,” Francesca said, “but John had a little severance pay coming.”

So they decided to open Yanni’s the next year in a 270-square-foot former deli in Penngrove’s one-block-long downtown where they could showcase John’s traditional Greek cooking and Francesca’s inventive recipes.

“Tiny” hardly describes the place. Yanni’s has just three stools inside and two small tables out on the sidewalk. The seating capacity is seven. But the Penngrove Pub next door has welcomed Yanni’s food on its premises.

“We’re going to miss them,” Penngrove Pub bartender Stacy Dean said Sunday. “They’re so sweet. They bring food to our people over here.”

Almost immediately, the locals latched on to this little gem of a cafe, and weren’t shy about spreading the word.

“Thanks for the hundred people you’ve sent us over the years,” John Vrattos told longtime customer Damon Finley of Rohnert Park, who came Sunday to buy eight packs of sausage. Finley, 44, found it easy to sum up the reasons for the grill’s success.

“It’s them - they make everybody feel like part of the family,” Finley said. “I love good sausages, and they make some of the best I’ve ever tasted.”

Outside, at one of Yanni’s two small tables, Matthew Galon, 31, offered his own testimony on the Vrattoses’ hospitality: “By my second visit, they knew me by name.”

It wasn’t long before the larger world outside began to notice. Yanni’s was named Best of Charcuterie at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair in 2010, 2011 and 2012. And actor and comedian Jim Belushi soon let the world know that Yanni’s was his favorite stop in Northern California.

Some of the most ardent Yanni’s fans have been Sonoma State University students, who kept coming back long after graduation.

Brian Bianchi, 35, an SSU grad and now a biology teacher in Pacifica, heard of the closing and had to come by one more time Sunday. “It’s like an icon of the area is leaving,” he said.

The closure of Yanni’s is a tale of success, not failure, because Yanni’s Sausage will continue to be made from the Yanni’s recipes by the Vrattoses’ two Bay Area contractors, one for restaurants and another for stores and markets. Yanni’s operation already sells from 900 to 1,200 pounds of sausage a week, John Vrattos estimated. He and his wife will oversee everything from a home office.

“It just shows if you get a game plan together and execute it, you can make it work,” he said, “but you’ve got to work hard.”

The spirit of Yanni’s will live on in the same small space in Penngrove, under new management and new name. New owner Tom Adams - who formerly designed, built and ran the Palm Springs Hotel in Palm Springs - and his partner, Thea Rabb, will reopen the restaurant as YiaYia’s, serving their own style of Greek food, and Yanni’s Sausages.

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @danarts.

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