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Resilient Sonoma County restaurateurs stake future on new sites

At the original Willi’s Wine Bar on Santa Rosa’s northern outskirts, the lights in the dining room flickered and dimmed when employees turned on the dishwasher in the kitchen.

Plumbing and electrical problems were among the challenges of operating a business in a 133-year-old building. So, too, was a lack of parking space, forcing patrons to navigate to the popular establishment on foot along Old Redwood Highway, often in darkness.

For owners Mark and Terri Stark, one major upside of losing Willi’s in the 2017 Tubbs fire was being able to upgrade and expand in their new location in the Town & Country Shopping Center in east Santa Rosa. At a renovation cost of just under $2 ?million, the new Willi’s is a 3,300-square-foot testament to modern trends in cooking, including kitchen appliances that actually work as intended.

Still, while business at the new site is gangbusters, the Starks and many of their longtime patrons profess nostalgia for the old Willi’s.

“The old location was just a funky roadhouse. We loved it for that reason,” Terri Stark said. “We can’t bring back an 1886 building. I miss that, and I miss that that was our first one (restaurant). There’s certain things you can’t replicate.”

For owners of several popular restaurants that burned in the 2017 blazes, a main challenge has been retaining the flavor of the original while capitalizing on the new and fresh.

With insurance money, these owners have been able to rebuild and, in many cases, upgrade, including expanded dining areas, new outdoor patios and more parking spaces for customers.

The new 4,400-square-foot Mountain Mike’s Pizza on Cleveland Avenue is a prime example. It opened a little more than a half-mile south of the original location, with upgrades that include a full bar, seating for 160, patio, a game room, 20 beer taps and its own small brewery.

“We definitely changed, and I think we changed for the better,” said Sonu Chandi, president and CEO of Chandi Hospitality Group, which operates the restaurant.

The company spent more than $1 million to rehab the site for the new pizzeria at the intersection of Cleveland and Russell Avenue. The space had been vacant for a decade, according to Chandi.

He said about half of the staff returned to work at the new location.

About 70% of the staff at the original Willi’s are now employed at the new location, according to Terri Stark. Nearly all found temporary employment at one of the five other restaurants the Starks own and operate in Sonoma County.

The only item the Starks managed to salvage from the 2017 blaze at Willi’s was a horseshoe, which now hangs behind the bar at the new location. Otherwise, only memories remain.

For some customers, the experience will never be the same. Ann Tussey, co-owner of Sweet T’s with her husband, Dennis, said “it really hurt my feelings” when some customers told her the new Windsor restaurant does not compare with the original site in Fountaingrove.

“The fact is, it’s never going to be the same,” Ann Tussey said. “In Fountaingrove, people would walk there (to the restaurant) from down the street. Sometimes they’d see each other more at Sweet T’s than anywhere else.”

The new 3,700-square-foot restaurant, in a former Denny’s off Brooks Road South in Windsor, is within walking distance of several hotels, which draws a different clientele. Business is going well, and the Tusseys have expanded the number of employees to 100, up from 70 at the former location.

The restaurant still offers up its Southern comfort food specialties, including smoked and barbecued meats, creamy mac and cheese, shrimp with grits, fried chicken and key lime pie.

The patio was partially constructed with salvaged wood from the original Sweet T’s. Two citrus plants that survived the blaze were hauled to the new location and now grace the entryway - symbols of survival and growth.

Restaurant owners cite similar challenges to their future. They include difficulty finding and retaining staff amid a period of record low unemployment and increased costs for food and services.

Another major hurdle are power outages in Sonoma County tied to reducing fire threat. Willi’s, Sweet T’s and the Cleveland Avenue Mountain Mike’s were shut down for days in October for lack of power.

Chandi called the power shut-offs a “nightmare” for the restaurant community, saying they result in lost business and food having to be thrown away.

The hospitality group decided not to reopen another of its restaurants, downtown Santa Rosa’s Stout Brothers, after the power was turned back on.

“We have to focus on the things that are doing really well,” Chandi said.

But as the busy holiday season approaches, the overriding sentiment among restaurant owners is one of relief and gratitude.

“We thought the worst of it was over in 2017,” Chandi said, “and it keeps coming back. It’s making us more resilient. I’m grateful for what we have and we continue to move forward.”

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