When sous chef Kipp Ramsey had to evacuate the home he shares with his wife and two sons in the middle of the night during the Wine Country wildfires, the last thing he was thinking about was the lost revenue from having to close Farmstead for a few days. But while, thankfully, his brood was just fine, thousands of dollars in produce perished when the restaurant’s electricity was shut off and all of the locally raised meat from Long Meadow Ranch had to be thrown away.
The fall tragedy is a classic case study in how to deal with the unexpected curveball of a natural disaster — Wine Country restaurateurs say creativity, grace under pressure, and fostering the same sense of community you get around a shared plate of food have helped them thrive in a time of intense emotional and fiscal stress.
“I never thought I was going to have to figure out what fits in my car and what are the things I can live without,” said Farmstead service manager Greg Neal. “I went around my house and videotaped everything just because I didn’t know if I’d ever see it again — and for insurance purposes.”
While he did make it back to his home in Napa unscathed, Neal says he recommends both businesses and homeowners have a yearly check-in to make sure all policies are up to date and documentation is stored in a safe place. Ultimately, while most crops for this farm-to-table outfit were fine and Farmstead was closed for just two and a half days, the aftershocks may be felt for far longer.
“October and November, we definitely saw a good 20 to 30 percent decrease in tourism traffic. Unfortunately, I think the media made it look worse than it actually was. I think it’s going to be about a year to make up for what we lost. Luckily, a lot of our business is locals so it could have been worse,” said Neal.
They were able to recoup a small amount of profit by truncating the amount of time off for the “slow season” that’s typically reserved for closure for renovations and upkeep.
While the fires dictated the Spoonbar closure for nearly a week in Healdsburg, it’s typically more difficult to close down strategically since the restaurant is inside a hotel. Chefs Casey and Patrick Van Voorhis were able to get creative with staffing and sourcing from sister restaurant Pizzando to keep at least one of them open for each seating during the fires and to keep everyone employed with a steady income stream.
“Restaurant ownership wanted to take care of our employees as best as we could, so we allowed them to use sick time or vacation days when they weren’t working because we had to cut labor,” explained Casey. “But a lot of the other restaurants that were closed wanted to donate their employees, so we were able to get some new people in and rotate some staff, so everyone got a new perspective on working in the area and in a new place.”
It also meant getting familiar with a new — and temporarily smaller — menu. “Our creativity was definitely challenged,” explained Patrick, who said that it was like a “potluck” every day when trying to figure out what restaurants had available for veggies and meat to make a ragout, for instance. “We trimmed down to two first-course options, two pastas, and three entrees. Most people received it pretty well; we had to get crafty because it wasn’t only about what we had but what we were able to get in terms of our vendors and product delivery not being available daily. It became a game of making a creative menu.”
There were also some unexpected flavors when their mushroom forager was only able to find fungi affected by smoke damage. The Van Voorhises decided to incorporate a smoked flavor into their mushroom dishes for a fun spin they’d never tried.
They were also humbled, they said, to be able to participate in the real essence of hospitality – both the hotel and restaurant hosted first-responders and those displaced by fire damage, for several weeks. Neal says as the first restaurant to reopen in St. Helena, it was a cathartic experience. “It was actually really beautiful to be here; it was amazing seeing people come together and give each other neighborly hugs. There were a lot of tears, quite honestly.”
Although sharing a meal is always an ideal time to celebrate community and togetherness, it became even more so at this time at The Restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America Copia, where local residents were welcomed to gather, chat, and enjoy meal discounts, and families were welcomed to take cooking classes while area schools were closed. Toques there participated in ChefsGiving, a Thanksgiving fundraising event that garnered a whopping $750,000 for those affected by blaze damage. Acacia House in St. Helena supported their local brethren with fundraising dinners. Feast of the Seven Cultures was a one-night tasting menu with six chefs around the country spotlighting Italy, Germany, and France, for instance, with proceeds supporting the Napa Valley Community Disaster Relief Fund.
Relief and support from the chef community have come in near and far, and Agern in New York City — whose wine list is California-heavy — donated a large portion of proceeds from its annual New Year’s Eve dinner to the Rebuild Wine Country non-profit.
So what’s the next step? “Ninety percent of grapes were harvested before the fires. Visitors need to know we’re open for business and going strong,” says Neal. “Our community is resilient.”