Each night before bed, José Navarro gets on his computer to see what diners think of his Peruvian restaurant’s seven ceviches or dishes like Lomo Saltado, tenderloin strips fried in a wok with a soy/balsamic sauce.
Navarro, who with his parents opened Sazón restaurant five years ago in Santa Rosa’s Roseland neighborhood, said he welcomes the online praise and criticism because it comes largely from savvy customers with a passion for good food. The informed interaction is a reason he considers this a golden time to be a Sonoma County restaurant owner.
“We’re living in a time right now of the foodies,” said Navarro, seated outside his Sebastopol Road establishment as a guest sampled a delectable concoction of his mother Lucia’s purple corn lemonade.
The county restaurant scene keeps growing in size, variety and, its advocates say, quality.
Since the recession, eating and drinking establishments have far outpaced the overall economy in job growth and now employ one of every 10 county workers.
In the Food Network-era, Wine Country remains a prime location to run a restaurant because of the confluence of tourism with local farm products, craft beer and fine wine. Owners said success is by no means assured and the competition is stiff, but the wide array of choices is helping draw in a critical mass of food lovers.
“There’s so much talent in Sonoma County right now,” said Dustin Valette, former chef at Hotel Healdsburg’s Dry Creek Kitchen who in March opened Valette in Healdsburg.
The restaurant, he said, has been a longtime dream for half-brother Aaron Garzini and him. And the time is right because “people are really starting to care about where their food comes from.”
Cheaper gas, new jobs
The U.S. restaurant industry is on the upswing, with sales expected to climb 3.8 percent this year to $709 billion, according to the National Restaurant Association.
And for the first time on record, Americans now are spending more money each month eating out than buying food at the grocery store, the association reported this month. Experts see the milestone as a sign of an improving economy.
“The two big reasons are lower gas prices and new employment,” said restaurant consultant Darren Tristano of Chicago-based Technomic.
The national outlook nonetheless remains tempered by the economic upheaval of the past seven years. Nearly 4 in 10 Americans last fall told the association they’re not eating out as often as they wish. Even so, 7 in 10 say they are still holding back on spending in some areas.
Since the recession ended in June 2009, the county has added more restaurants and the size of the dining workforce has significantly increased.
The number of eating and drinking establishments in Sonoma County grew 10 percent to 1,055 between 2009 and 2014, according to the state Employment Development Department. The number includes 482 full-service restaurants, 318 limited-service eateries where customers pay before being served, 153 cafeterias and snack bars, 50 caterers and 52 bars.
Over that five-year period, these businesses hired workers at a pace twice as fast as the overall economy, expanding their workforce 23 percent to more than 16,800 people.
Wide variety of offerings
The county’s food scene varies from Michelin-starred restaurants to the “tamale guy” who regularly sets up an impromptu stand on Sebastopol Road near Sazón — “the best $1.50 you’re going to spend,” Navarro said of his neighbor’s offerings.