When One Year Closes, A New Year Opens
Thinking about 2020 is mostly heart wrenching and frustrating. There is no doubt that everyone you know can't wait for this year to be over and life can get back to normal. What the new normal looks like and when that will be is anyone's guess.
In my 2020 reflection, I am proud of our team, adapting to all of the 'pivots' and going along as we threw everything we could at them to make it work. They were laid-off, rehired, furloughed and hopefully will be around when we are able to rehire them again. They are/were resilient, kept their fears to a minimum (or to themselves) and followed all of the new protocols that we pushed out to be safe and that would allow us to keep our businesses open alongside the pandemic.
So in retrospect here are my abbreviated memories of what happened in 2020 by the month. There were definitely some silver linings along the way - we have two new babies, and at least one newly wedded couple. This is a long essay, and I won't blame you if you don't read it to the end, but I must say it feels good to get it all out on paper and see how much we accomplished!
It started out like a normal January. We completed our spring cleaning, replaced the floor in the bar area and redid the bar. with new equipment and a reconfiguration (first time in 20 years). We launched our newly designed labels (designed by Britton Design) on our figFOOD products. We stirred and shook at the annual Martini Madness and got to see all of our restaurant friends and loyal Martini Madness attendees.
January floated into February. The restaurant was busy with big Valentine / President's weekend (combined for the first time in many years). The catering department was also very busy with casual catering drop offs, fig rig events at wineries and public events like the annual Community Center Chili Bowl Fundraiser.
We excitedly received and released the new vintages of some of our House Rhône wines that were bottled by our wine partner friends exclusively for us and we were knee deep in the annual planning of the Hospice du Rhône event in Paso Robles set for the end of April.
My second Leap Year party celebrating women supporting women was held at Suite D and little did any of know that this would turn out to be the last large gathering many of us attending during 2020.
The catering staff and chefs had been working hard on developing their new Farm Table packages. We had a handful of intimate tastings with our Winery and Event partners and at the same time had some fun photoshoots. Both restaurants and catering were quite busy for this time of year and attributed to lovely weather (even though we really needed the rain).
In March, Brian and I recorded our 75th episode of The Bite Goes On and we continued on with The Bite Goes On Second Helpings Series at Suite D with our March guest, Mike The Bejkr.
Mid month, the World started to turn upside down. We continued to hear rumblings about the spread of the virus happening in China and had a close eye on Seattle as apparently the first case in the United States was announced that it had been discovered back in mid January.
We closed the restaurants a couple of days prior to the State mandate that required us to close our businesses. We were very busy and without all of the facts and a strong understanding of what was happening we did not want to put our staff or guests at risk. We took some time to create some financial strategies before making changes. The following week we tried to offer drive through food from Suite D and with a very heavy heart and a lot of tears we laid off over 150 staff members. We created a 'Go Fund Me' and put together some staff meals and groceries for them as we all waited for more news.
We also got news that our upcoming June event with Outstanding in the Field at Donum would be cancelled. This was just the beginning of many disappointments yet to come.
The first week in April, we got a call from Sonoma Family Meals asking us to assist in providing food to some our our non-profits including La Luz, Council on Aging, Vintage House and to our Sonoma Residents. This was a wonderful thing as the stipend covered the cost of the food and we were able to bring some staff members back to work. It was humbling to have been able to supply over 23,000 meals in a relatively short period of time to people in need.
In the first week of April, our Chamber of Commerce also came through and held a ZOOM meeting every morning (Monday - Friday) for thirty minutes. This was such a lifeline to touch base with other business owners to know what they were going through as well as an amazing conduit for information. We were able to hear from all sorts of guests including our local politicians, health directors, community leaders and such.
Mid April, we reopened the fig café in Glen Ellen for take out and curbside service. Protocols were still changing, the team adapted well (along with a few Covid scares and emergency testing). Gratefully, our loyal neighbors and guests showed up to pick up food and show their support. This was also the time that will go down in history as the mysterious toilet paper and yeast shortage, which gave us a good reason to start offering these and some other basic necessities.
Towards the end of the month we were able to put some more team members to work by offering delivery. We thought that delivery would be a popular idea, but in the end the demand wasn't there.
In the catering department, the phones were ringing nonstop (not in a good way). With over 50 weddings booked for the 2020 season and many other celebrations, we were getting frantic calls from brides to be and event planners. This year has been a constant ebb and flow of good news - bad news and unfortunately the girl & the fig CATERS! got hit the hardest. As I write this in December, we had a few weddings that have been rescheduled three times.
Yup, I turned the big 6-0 with TWO cakes and the team sang to me (socially distanced) which really touched me more than they knew.
May was beginning to look up as we received the approval for a PPP loan and though the language and rules were challenging to start, we felt a bit of relief as we tried to put some things back together and rehire some of our staff.
the fig café was still doing its thing and the next thing we turned on was the fig rig. With permission from both the City of Sonoma and the Unified School District we were allowed to park the truck in the empty bus loading zone until the end of July (when they thought they would start getting students back to school in mid August).
Mother's Day looked a bit different this year, but we still celebrated moms with a Mother's Day Brunch Box. In the weeks that followed, Sonoma County would finally be allowed to open for outdoor dining with 6 foot social distancing and 25% occupancy capacity.
Events were still on hold. Wineries were allowed to reopen outdoors but only if they had a meal component. We reached out to our winery partners and offered our contactless casual catering, our pizza ovens and cheese boxes. We were again grateful for the new stream of work, the ability to get more of the team back to work and we were certainly happy for our winery partners to get back to business.
We also parked one of our pizza ovens at Starling Bar and started making pizzas to give them the ability to reopen for cocktails to go.
There were a few Silver Linings that were specific to restaurants which included serving cocktails to go and using our sidewalks for seating. The ABC (Alcohol Board of Control) added a rule to give licensees a path to serve cocktails to go alongside a meal. This is concept has been extremely helpful in both sales and using up inventory. We started with pouches and have since ended up with glass bottles holding enough ingredients to make cocktails for 2 and 4 that just need to be shaken and chilled or poured over ice. The second opportunity was the ability to use accessible outdoor space; (sidewalks, the Sonoma Plaza and lastly parklets) that the City of Sonoma worked hard to grant us. This effort to help us all get some of our capacity back was a miracle for so many of us. These new outdoor areas have created an almost European vibe of outdoor dining. After a month of working through the details with the city and the ABC we finally got the sidewalk open. We certainly hope that both of these concepts will be able to stay around long after the pandemic is gone.
The first step in reopening the girl & the fig in Sonoma was our partnership with our friends at Wicked Slush in Healdsburg. With this collaboration we were able to offer our guests something fun, different and delicious for the hot summer days that were coming. The most popular option was SLUSHTAILS. We created some cocktails using Wicked Slush like Sicilian Slush, Black Cherry Negroni and Tangerine Crush. Then we added some grab and go options (sandwiches, salads, cheese) as these cocktails had to be served alongside a meal.
Putting a 'figgy' spin on hand sanitizer, our good friends at Prohibition Spirits created a special Fig Kiss Hand Sanitizer exclusively for us.
We also created the first of many QR codes that gave our guests the ability to peruse our offerings without touching single use menus. This is not necessarily new technology just not something preciously associated with restaurant menus. In the beginning, we spent a good amount of time explaining the concept. Months later and over 55,000 scans this has proven to be an incredible tool which now seems to be mainstream.
One of our July collaborations was with Transcendence Theatre Company. They turned their beloved season into a completely virtual event. They gave us the opportunity to offer dinner boxes to accompany their online summer performances. I must say they did an extraordinary job with the shows. They were entertaining and they were able to reach out to a much larger audience.
Thanks to an official resolution made by our Sonoma City Council, we were able to set up an entirely new outdoor dining area under the historic trees on the Northwest corner of the Sonoma Plaza. Our new space was conveniently located diagonally across from the girl & the fig restaurant. This was a fun, yet complicated Pop-Up. As with everything this year, the rules and regulations changed so frequently and often times they didn't seem to make sense, but we went with the flow and certainly grateful for having more space to bring our business levels up and hire more staff. We started with some set dinner menus and brunch but that quickly changed to more of a casual lunch menu that we cooked right on the plaza. Had it not been for the constant setting up, breaking down and the limited hours available to be there, we would probably have continued with this for as long as we could.
It was also during this time in an unplanned yet welcomed opportunity, we sold the fig rig to another company. With mixed feelings, we knew this was the right decision for the time. We know that there will be times in the future where we will miss having our popular food truck, but we also know that the future will bring many new possible endeavors.
Come August, the year seemed to be flying by at a greater speed considering so many things were kept at a minimum. Sonoma fig trees were chock full and we were able to keep our Neighborhood Fig program going and actually using them all in the restaurant. By the end of the season we collected over 650 pounds of figs from our friends and neighbors.
I finished and published my online only Covid Issue of #figChronicles. Since it was only online, the chronicles ended up being 36 pages instead of 24. The focus was not about the doom and gloom over the pandemic but more about the need to share and celebrate the wonderful sources of inspiration, creativity and some the things that got us through the days, the weeks and the months.
The Wildfires started earlier than years prior and once again were devastating. From August through October, four different fires burned over 125,000 acres of land in just Sonoma County. Our neighbors in Napa had more than their share of fires as well and suffered the loss of some very historical wineries and other properties. Once again, the fig café in Glen Ellen was closed, as it was in 2017, as the nearby towns were evacuated and our hero firefighters were doing their best to keep the fires at bay. The constant reminder of the 2017 fires, the seriously poor air quality, the fire sirens and onslaught of fire news was unravelling for so many of us on top of the pandemic edge we have been living.
In September I was invited for my second opportunity to speak to Congress about how the pandemic was affecting the restaurant business and what was working and what was hindering around the PPP requirements. This was an honor to be able to share our personal story and I was determined to express the hardships both the business and staff members were going through.
With outdoor dining up and going, the chefs were able to once again think about the spectacular flavors of the seasons and to add some delicious items to our menus.
In October, we flipped out the very popular Wicked Slush (as the weather was changing so were peoples' mood for food options). We introduced NoodleSpring to downtown Sonoma at the girl & the fig. In the past few years NoodleSpring was a weekly PopUp at Suite D, but we turned it into a secondary restaurant for TakeOut only.
The other change at the girl & the fig, was our new Parklet on West First Street. Using a few parking spaces, the city assisted in securing the space right outside our patio door. We were getting closer to our patio capacity (with the sidewalk and the parklet) so we packed up the Plaza operation. This was also due to the lack of man power to make all of these areas work at once. As much unemployment that was being reported, it was strangely getting harder and harder to find new employees.
Even though the Presidential election took center stage, we continued to take advantage of the beautiful Sonoma weather and the ability to keep offering outdoor dining. We continued our support for the Independent Restaurant Coalition fighting for the Restaurant Act as well as helping promote the California Restaurant Association Restaurants Care, 'November Dine Out'.
Our Sonoma Community Center had their annual 'Trashion Fashion' in a completely virtual show which was creative and fun and really promoted the spirit of Sonoma.
The looming Thanksgiving holidays brought a mixture of sentiment, folks missing and wanting to be with extended family, at the same time knowing that the right thing was to stick close to home and comply with the warnings. Year after year, Thanksgiving has typically been our busiest day of the year. We knew that this year would look like nothing from years past as we created our Thanksgiving boxes which included reheating instructions.
As I write this, we are between Christmas and New Years. We created and offered a handful of holidays options and our ovens seem to be on all the time baking cookies. I am definitely ready to close the book on this year. Who knows what 2021 will bring, but we do have so much to be thankful for.
My heart goes out to everyone that have been both affected by the virus and the wildfires. Many people have lost loved ones, homes and dreams. I admire the real heroes of the year; the health care workers, dealing with the unforgiving science of the virus and the constant emotions surrounding this pandemic. The firefighters and first responders for the wildfires are of course heroes too. These people are all putting their lives in danger to selflessly protect and save strangers and property. There is much to be said by all of the emotions that go into the retrospect of 2020.
Better to contemplate over what is to come in 2021. We can see hope, change and commitment for action on the horizon. I look forward to seeing how things unfold.