Sondra Bernstein, proprietor of The Girl & The Fig restaurant on the Sonoma Plaza, was set to have a record year. In addition to the Fig Cafe in Glen Ellen, The Girl & The Fig catering company, Suite D event space, and the Fig Rig food truck, Bernstein had just opened her own wine tasting room.
But then the North Bay fires happened, and Berstein’s businesses collectively lost an estimated $250,000 as a result — as soon as the fires made the news, the reservation books emptied and all upcoming events cancelled. Left with some time on her hand Bernstein figured she might as well put their kitchens to use.
“When the fires happened, I ended up in work mode,” said Bernstein, who worked together with the Sonoma Valley Rotary Club to help her community in their time of need. “We set up the kitchen and fed thousands of people every day for eight or nine days—evacuees, firefighters, police, and people that were evacuated to hotels.”
Without electricity for days, many local restaurants, stores and markets were in danger of losing all of their food, so Bernstein also opened up Suite D, home to her catering kitchen, to take in their perishable items. All the while, flames were dangerously close to the Fig Cafe in Glen Ellen. Bernstein just kept working; hoping for the best, while assuming the worst.
Thankfully, the cafe survived, and only three out of Bernstein’s 250 employees lost their homes. Eventually, the power returned, and so did the patrons.
“Once people got settled and the dust settled a little bit, business came back. People needed to be with other people and people needed to tell their stories,” she said. But that doesn’t mean she, or her fellow Sonoma business owners, are out of the woods.
“I don’t want to see one restaurant go out of business, not one person who had their heart set on their business go out of business. It’s not good for any of us,” she said. “If you love wine country, come. Plan something in the spring, send someone a gift card, buy someone a present, drink Sonoma wine.”
Roughly a month before the fires, Bernstein opened her newest venture, a wine tasting room at the quirky, new Sonoma Roadside collective called The Rhone Room. It’s the culmination of a 10-year passion project where she’s partnered with different winemakers to produce 14 “rhone-alone” wines. These are not your typical Sonoma chardonnays and pinot noirs, but instead feature varietals like grenache, viognier, syrah and cinsault.
Bernstein hardly had the chance to get the word out about being open before she had to shut down. During the fires she feared for that business too: The flames were right across the road, but didn’t jump the pavement.
“I feel like I have to restart the whole thing,” she said. Moreover, she and many business owners are now facing a new reality of not recovering their total losses, despite good insurance coverage.
Bernstein said she has very good coverage after an incident years ago when a drunk driver drove through the restaurant’s pantry and they got nailed on their claims. She assumed she’d be better off this time around, but it’s looking like she’ll still come up $100,000 short.
“We lost about $250,000, and maybe we’ll get $150,000,” she said. “How does that work? It’s really frustrating, like how is this possible? If we’re well insured and getting 60 percent, what does someone with really horrible insurance get?”
Still, she’s confident that she and Sonoma County as a whole can bounce back in 2018.
“I have hope for the spring. Our inquiries for next year for catering are fabulous. For me, that’s a really good sign,” she said. “If someone comes up planning their wedding, their guests are coming, they’re going to have a rehearsal dinner, we’re going to cater something, they stay in hotels, they go to the restaurant, the bar, we’re going to order from purveyors and people are going to work. To me, it’s not just, ‘Oh, we’re going to have catering.’ It’s an energy.”