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Rebuild: Post-fire staffing woes, rising rents and higher food costs challenge Sonoma County restaurants

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Special Coverage

This story is part of a monthly series in 2019 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here.

Behind the welcoming smiles and artistic plates of hand-foraged winter mushroom ragu, Sonoma County restaurateurs are deeply worried. With fallout from natural disasters shrinking their workforce, a housing crisis and fewer customers to feed, it’s been a challenging 18 months since the October 2017 wildfires.

Chef and owner Shawn Hall of Sebastopol’s Gypsy Cafe said she’s always had a bustling breakfast, brunch and lunch crowd in her cozy downtown cafe. As she surveys the room, with about three-quarters of the tables occupied on a recent weekday, she said the crowd is actually smaller than usual.

“It’s so difficult in this industry. I don’t know if we can survive. I mean, the flu season is scary to me now because we don’t have enough staff if people get sick,” she said.

Already at least three food purveyors in Sonoma County have blamed their closures on the fires, including Two Tread Brewing in downtown Santa Rosa, SHED in Healdsburg and Rechere du Plaisir chocolates. Owners said loss of customers, staffing problems and fewer tourists were a triple hit to their businesses. Other restaurant owners interviewed for this story say, although tourism and local customer visits mostly have recovered, potentially crippling staffing and cost-of-living issues persist.

Sonoma County’s population shrank by more than 3,300 people between July 2017 and July 2018, according to state figures. After years of steady growth, the shrinking population is concerning for business owners. The numbers show only the tip of what could be a growing exodus of lower- and middle-income workers who are the backbone of the restaurant industry.

Compounding the problem, rents on even modest houses and apartments have risen so sharply that it is difficult for anyone making less than the median income of $72,000 to afford housing. Most restaurant workers earn between $11 and $20 an hour, with the sweet spot around $17, or $33,150 a year.

Though no official figures yet exist, anecdotal information shows Sonoma County’s eligible hospitality workforce has contracted so severely that restaurateurs are doing just about anything they can to keep existing staff.

“They’ve lost housing. Coffey Park was the center of our service crowd,” Hall said.

Before the fires, the Santa Rosa neighborhood was one of the more affordable places for renters and middle-income families. With rents jumping thousands of dollars, hospitality workers are finding themselves priced out of their old neighborhoods.

Hall said she is paying dishwashers $17 hourly and $30 to $35 for line cooks who typically get paid about $20 an hour.

“I do it to keep them here. They’re staying because I give them extra perks,” she said. “We’ve never had to think this way. I used to put an ad out and dozens of people would show up. Now I might get one.”

Miriam Donaldson of Petaluma’s Wishbone restaurant has jokingly posted offers of $1 million for a dishwasher, explaining how difficult it has been to find and keep staff, mostly in lower-paying jobs.

“My biggest issue has been staff not being able to afford housing. There are still customers, but there are few and fewer talented cooks because people are having to move to pursue their careers,” Donaldson said.

Special Coverage

This story is part of a monthly series in 2019 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here.

Without staff, restaurants face operating limited hours or shutting down altogether.

Ironically, during the fires, many restaurants donated thousands of dollars and many hours to feeding fire survivors and first responders.

John Franchetti, whose namesake restaurant was a hub for feeding fire survivors in 2017, said his restaurant has been on a roller coaster ride with staffing challenges, rising rent, food cost increases and customer ebbs and flows.

“We had a staff member leave in October because he couldn’t afford rent. I’ve put ads out and I get a lot of responses, and then people just don’t show up for the interview. Or, they show up and I hire them and then they don’t show up,” he said.

Franchetti is taking a different approach to the problem. To offset costs, John and his wife, Gesine, work the day shift in the kitchen. They’re also updating the restaurant interior and offering a new menu that reflects his Italian heritage and Gesine’s German background. The restaurant will be rebranded as Franchetti’s Gasthaus.

“We need to reinvent ourselves to get people to come in,” he said.

Restaurant Week in early March was a boom for him, but since then business has been lackluster.

“We aren’t seeing the numbers we’ve seen in the past,” Franchetti said. The floods just happened and got people worried. Its tax season with all new tax laws. People are concerned about money, but how many excuses can I make?”

Piling on tragedy for the restaurant industry, recent floods temporarily closed several restaurants in Sebastopol, displacing hundreds of workers and leaving them with no paychecks. Though no one wanted to discuss it on the record, immigrant workers, who power much of the restaurant industry, also worry about immigration and customs enforcement raids on restaurants, according to several chefs.

Chandi Hospitality Group, owner of several downtown Santa Rosa restaurants and Mountain Mike’s Pizza franchises, is among the restaurateurs rebuilding after its Cleveland Avenue pizzeria was destroyed in 2017.

“The labor market is absolutely, insanely hard right now,” said Chandi President Sonu Chandi. “We cannot find the background, the talent and even at the level of salary we are offering, we can’t find anyone. It was bad before, but it’s getting worse. A lot of people have moved away.”

He plans to reopen the Mountain Mike’s pizzeria in June. “It’s turning out beautiful,” he said.

Like other restaurants rebuilding, there’s a silver lining in the goodwill customers have toward those most deeply affected by the wildfires.

Popular Fountaingrove restaurant Sweet T’s reopened in Windsor earlier this year and has been overwhelmed by dining fans. Lines are typically extending outside the new eatery, and getting a reservation can take weeks.

Mark and Terri Stark, whose flagship restaurant Willi’s Wine Bar burned in the fire, plan to reopen a revamped Willi’s at Santa Rosa’s Town & Country shopping center in May. Co-owner Terri Stark said one of their biggest hurdles, aside from the emotional loss, was placing more than 50 Willi’s employees into their five other restaurants for the last 18 months.

“We had an entire restaurant of employees to relocate overnight,” she said. They’ve kept 47 of the 52 employees on payroll, making staffing less of a problem as they plan to reopen both Willi’s and a new restaurant called Grossman’s Deli next fall.

Stark said that one of their toughest times was during the Camp fire last summer.

“That definitely had a bigger effect on our business than the Tubbs fire overall. The smoke was way worse and people just weren’t going out. It was toxic air quality, and it lasted so long,” she said.

Wages also have been an issue for the Starks.

“Everyone forgets that when minimum wage goes up so does everything else. It’s good for the employees, but restaurants have budgets. The asking wage has gone up so high that it’s pretty hard to run your business,” she said.

John Franchetti tries to take it all in stride as he puts on his chef’s coat every morning and stands behind an 800-degree oven for much of the day.

“Karma takes a long time to work sometimes. I’m just trying to stay positive,” he said.

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