Owners of former Fremont Diner to reopen Sonoma service station, reversing course on new eatery

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The historic status of a Sonoma gas station has stymied plans to turn it into a 52-seat restaurant.

Two years after they secured permission from the city of Sonoma to turn the former 76 Station at Broadway and MacArthur into a restaurant, Chad and Erika Harris, owners of the former Fremont Diner, have reversed course.

The restaurant they had long planned for 891 Broadway will once again become a gas station, with the couple hoping to take a shot at the petrol business in the coming weeks.

Impressed by the retro look of the station, the Harrises had long hoped to remake the site into a restaurant, with indoor and outdoor seating. The bid was approved by the Planning Commission in June 2017. But the project’s high costs and complexity — transforming a service station formally recognized as a historic site into a modern eatery — were more than they had expected.

“It just ended up being incredibly costly,” Erika Harris said. “The engineering alone was beyond what we could afford.”

The property was the site of Sonoma’s first service station, established in 1935. The current station was built in what’s called a “white box” style, according to co-owner Erika Harris. It was one of nearly 10,000 built by Texaco in the Bauhaus style, with an aim to reflect a feeling of speed and progress in an era when cars were quickly becoming an essential part of everyday American life.

Protected by the town’s Design Review and Historic Preservation Commission as a historic parcel, all proposed alterations to the station required approval. In their haste to rehab the station, the Harris’ encountered a mess of permitting and renovation hurdles.

Located on Highway 12, there were additional demands by Cal Trans to upgrade sidewalks.

“I don’t know a lot, but we had to do a lot of improvement. The engineering alone was really expensive. We should have realized we were on a highway. It was just one of those things,” said Harris.

The Harrises’ Fremont Diner, a popular roadhouse on Highway 121 closed abruptly in June 2018. The space was reimagined as Boxcar Fried Chicken & Biscuits, opening in the same location three months after the closure of Fremont Diner.

The simplified concept was explained by Erika Harris at the time as a way to make the business more manageable and sustainable while still drawing in droves of eaters. The news was softened for some by the couples’ plans to open the new Broadway eatery, where environmental cleanup was proceeding.

But the Harrises said plans for the Broadway site were already shifting as they began the upgrades and quickly got into hot water with the city.

“It’s for sure a learning curve, and we’re figuring it out as we go along,” said Harris.

Wayne Wirick, development services director in the city building department, said his office issued a pair of stop-work orders and notices of violation last month at the property.

“They jumped the gun and didn’t get the necessary permits,” said Wirick. “Now they’re having to work backward and start from scratch.”

Wirick added that they had submitted plans and a permit application to replace existing fuel pumps. He said that once the new pumps were approved by the city, they could begin gas sales.

Erika Harris said the canopy over the pumps was dangerously unstable and they “stupidly didn’t get a demo permit.” Associate City Planner Wendy Atkins said she believed the pump island had been hit by a vehicle.

Now, with city penalties assessed and new permits in the pipeline, the Harrises are busily executing their Plan B for the site.

“The city has been very helpful in helping us sort it out,” said Harris.

If Chad and Erika Harris don’t find the gas business to their liking, they still have that original restaurant use permit on file with the city. That permission, however, has a shelf life, as well. “You can’t just sit on it for 10 years and then decide to do it,” Storer said.

Harris and her husband plan to be at the station on a day-to-day basis, going between the gas station and restaurant.

“I’ll be there on a regular basis,” she said. “I’ll pump your gas, but I don’t know if I’ll be washing your windows. I’m not all that good at that, as it turns out.”

They’ll stock the small store inside with the usual gas station fare, but don’t be surprised if there are a few quirks inside the station. “It’s a convenience store, but our way,” said Harris.

“It wasn’t part of the original plan, but it’s going to be just dandy,” Harris said.

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