Local businesses lose more than just their buildings in Sonoma County fires

Arby's in Santa Rosa, Monday, Oct. 9, 2017. (Photo: Daryl Bush)


This is a special advertising section. The material was prepared by the advertising department and did not involve the reporting or editing staff of The Press Democrat.

The deadly wildfires that swept through Northern California in October caused widespread destruction to local homes and businesses, consuming over 30,000 acres and destroying more than 6,000 structures here in Sonoma County.

More than $3 billion in covered losses have so far been reported, a figure that is expected to rise, with over 85 percent of the damage occurring in Sonoma County where an estimated 5,000 homes and 1,500 commercial structures were destroyed.

In addition to the significant loss of property, Sonoma County is set to absorb a $21 million shortfall at the end of the fiscal year due to an expected revenue decline of nearly $10.7 million from the cost of damage and the use of public dollars to fund the response.

Such costs have put significant strain on both the residents who have lost their homes and the businesses who depend on local patronage for their survival, highlighting both the challenge and imminent importance of the rebuilding effort facing our community.

For many Sonoma County businesses, the rebuild is a literal one as business owners who have lost property to the fire must now decide how to proceed as local cleanup and reconstruction efforts begin.

Willi’s Wine Bar, a critically acclaimed local’s favorite known for its unassuming refinement that so well embodied the essence of Sonoma County, is one such business, destroyed by flames in the early morning following the first night of the fire.

“Everyone was gone except one of the managers, who tried to hose it down and turn the gas off,” Owner Terri Stark confirmed. “But eventually he had to leave.”

Like so many business owners, Terri and husband, co-owner, Mark, are still unsure what the future holds in the wake of the devastation.

“There’s nothing else to do right now besides take it one day at a time,” Terri says. “We have people who have lost everything, and we’re trying to do what we can for them.”

Terri and Mark own five additional restaurants in Sonoma County that have remained open since the fires, coordinating free meals for first responders and employees and residents affected by the fires. Their company, Stark Reality Restaurants, employs over 400 people, with roughly 85 percent living in impacted areas.

“I don’t know what to expect each day,” Stark says. “But we’re going to try to help. Each day. That’s all you can do.”

For now, Willi’s Wine Bar remains closed as Terri and Mark work to rebuild. Their other restaurants, however, are open: Bird and the Bottle, Monti’s and Stark’s Steak & Seafood in Santa Rosa and Bravas Bar de Tapas and Willi’s Seafood and Raw Bar in Healdsburg.

Other local businesses, while still standing, have found large portions of their customer base impacted by the fires and face uncertainty as they anxiously wait to see if pre-fire profits and long-loyal customers will return.

Molsberry Market, a local grocer serving Santa Rosa since 1958 and owned by brothers Brian, Dean and Joe Molsberry, narrowly avoided being destroyed by the fire.

“The business is still standing,” says Brian. “But everything from our fence all the way to Santa Rosa is gone.”

Many of Molsberry Market’s customers lost their homes in the fire and now must decide if and when they will be able to return, leaving local business owners such as the Molsberry’s unsure about the future.

“If I had to guess,” says Brian. “At least one-third of our customers lost their homes. And talking to many of the customers, they don’t know if they are planning on rebuilding.”

Such stories are common in the frenetic haze of the post-fire rebuild. While residents decide whether or not to return, local businesses must strike a balance between keeping their business open and helping their communities rebuild.

Through a fundraising barbecue and by selling ‘thank you first responder’ and ‘Sonoma Strong’ t-shirts and signs, Molsberry Market has been able to raise nearly $13,000 toward local fire relief.

“The store has been here almost 60 years,” Brian says. “Our entire family and crew have relationships with our customers and it’s sad to see them going through this. It’s about the relationships that have been built up over all these years.”

All of Sonoma County has been touched by the tragic October wildfires. And the impact of the devastation can be felt throughout the community. Whether or not directly affected, residents and businesses alike are dealing with the fire’s uncertain wake.

The Pullman Kitchen in Santa Rosa’s iconic Railroad Square serves fresh, honest food with a focus on sourcing from sustainable, local producers and warm, gracious service. Owner Darren McRonald has seen a large portion of their customers affected by the fires. He knows this is probably true for many Sonoma County businesses.

“I don’t think that there was a person or business in Napa or Sonoma counties that wasn’t impacted by the fires,” he says. “Our business suffered a huge loss in the weeks following the fires, but I’m sure I’m not the only one.”

And like so many local businesses, The Pullman Kitchen is left wondering if and when their customers will return once the dust has settled.

“I think the big question for everyone right now,” Darren says, “is how many will leave, how many will stay and how long will the rebuilding process last.”

For Sonoma County to fully recover from October’s wildfires, it is imperative that residences and businesses rebuild together. Supporting local businesses has never been more important. And even though Sonoma County faces a long road to recovery, Brian Molsberry sees plenty of reason for hope.

“We all felt the community became closer after the fire,” he says. “Neighbors meeting neighbors, people just friendlier towards each other. People sharing their stories while visiting the store. It’s really brought people together.”

As fellow community members, local businesses such as Stark Reality Restaurants, Pullman’s Kitchen and Molsberry Market care for their customers. They are our neighbors, our friends and our family.

And as we endeavor together to Rebuild Sonoma County, it is more important than ever to support the local businesses that make our community great and keep Sonoma Strong.