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Sally Tomatoes owner prepares for the worst amid coronavirus fears

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A gas fireplace warmed the back of Rohnert Park restaurateur Gerard Giudice Thursday in the rustic, barnwood-walled dining room of his Heirloom Cafe, devoid of anyone else but a single visitor who didn’t come to eat.

The resident of more than 20 years was lamenting the major cutbacks and layoffs of people he considers family that Giudice already let go. Among the cooks, bartenders and catering staff, all but five of his 25 workers have been furloughed, and he’s begun desperately slashing utility costs, including shutting down one of his large refrigerators.

“I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t scared,” Giudice said, his eyes welling with emotion during an unprecedented week when Sonoma County officials ordered people to largely stay home for three weeks to curtail spread of the coronavirus through the community. “Yeah dude, we may go down. But if we go down, we’re gonna go down swinging.”

Giudice, 58, who has co-owned the catering, restaurant and event business for 14 years — 11 at the Sonoma Mountain Village cafe site under the name Sally Tomatoes — has been living out his dream of helping build community one meal at a time.

He’s also for the past 19 years dedicated himself to service as a Rotarian and a dozen as a planning commissioner, in the process becoming a symbol of grassroots leadership and civic engagement.

Over that time, while raising his daughters in the city’s C Section neighborhood, Giudice has worked to make his modern Italian fusion restaurant a popular gathering place for residents.

“It’s like the lights closing on Broadway in New York as a symbol,” said longtime City Councilman Jake Mackenzie. “In Rohnert Park, Sally Tomatoes and Heirloom Cafe being lost, to me, would be a big blow to the community.”

But on Thursday, Giudice had to catch himself speaking in the past tense about what he thinks could be a forgone conclusion his restaurant will fold under the economic pressures suddenly foisted upon small businesses across the nation.

“You get a little reflective, right? I really hope I don’t have to go out of business,” Giudice said. “But no independents — none — that I know of could survive something like this. It is absolutely a statement about fragility and the fact that life isn’t permanent.”

To counterpunch against the path he thinks his restaurant is on, he is working fast to change the business model. Although he is hopeful residents will soon get tired of the nonperishable food they’ve stockpiled and begin placing orders for individually packaged comfort meals, prepared in a sterile, commercial kitchen and delivered in a matter of hours, Giudice acknowledged it’s going to be difficult.

Now, roughly 60% of the business is based on off-site catering of large events, from weddings, funerals and corporate lunches, as well as little league sports fundraisers in the cafe. All of that for the time being has dried up, with 31 of Sally Tomatoes’ 33 bookings for the month of March abruptly canceled, he said. The prospects for summer don’t look much brighter.

Drop-in lunches, plus evening bar tabs, from SOMO Village’s nearby office workers account for barely a double-digit percentage of the overall operation. So Giudice and co-founder Bill Pettibone rounded out the business with daily activities over dinner for Rohnert Park regulars, in addition to concerts and comedy nights with name acts.

Those too are on hold, with booking agents and managers unwilling to consider sending their talent anywhere until October, Giudice said. So he’s thankful for any orders in the meantime, including the three calls he fielded Thursday for family-style dinners, and the 50 box lunches from a friend to deliver to some of the homeless in Santa Rosa.

“We need to all take a deep breath and reflect on what it is that matters, and what it is that counts,” he said. “If we’re gonna go broke, let’s go broke together with our heads up.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify that SOMO Village’s annual outdoor concert series and music events booked by Sally Tomatoes are separate.

The Press Democrat wants to know what stories you see emerging and what you're experiencing locally during the shelter-in-place order. Reach out to us at coronavirus@pressdemocrat.com.

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