YOUNTVILLE — Sixteen years after opening Hurley’s Restaurant, Chef Bob Hurley has announced he will close on Sunday, after selling the property to the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group.
“I have a really big bucket list and I’m not getting any younger, so it was just time to move on to my next adventure,” Hurley said. “My wife (Cynthia) and I would like to do a lot more traveling — like we did when we were younger — and I intend on redefining myself.”
Hurley sat down to discuss the sale, his past and his future at the bar of his restaurant just as lunch service last Thursday was about to begin. The staff, who had been informed of the closing only a few days earlier, put on brave faces and went about their business of greeting customers warmly. The news had just begun to trickle out into the community.
“Our team is the best I’ve ever worked with, and I wanted to make sure that the deal was 100 percent sure before I announced the sale,” Hurley said. “We have provided each member of the staff severance and are helping them with the transition as much as we can.”
Given the chronic labor shortage in the Napa Valley, it is unlikely that his staff will find it difficult to procure work. But replacing the culture of Hurley’s will be a challenge.
“I have been here for 10 years, and most of the other staff have been here for a long time, too — that’s pretty rare in this business,” said General Manager Meredith Ahrenholtz. “I will miss everyone, including all of our longtime customers, but I am also happy for Bob. He is probably the hardest-working person that I have ever met, and he and Cynthia deserve to enjoy their lives outside of the restaurant.”
When she heard the news, another longtime employee, bar manager Cassie Gesiakowski, had mixed emotions.
“I was extremely happy for him because he deserves it,” she said. “When he told me I had lots of tears — happy tears. I was kind of a lifer here (14 years) and so this is a good kick in the pants to get out there and experience something new and see what else I am made of.”
What’s next for the Hurley location?
“As I understand it, Thomas (Keller) is considering a range of options, including Mexican food, for the space,” Hurley said. “One thing that he did make perfectly clear was that he intended to honor and respect our legacy of ensuring that any restaurant would be committed to the community and its values, which he has long been a part of. I have always admired him (Keller) in the past, but going through this transaction has only made me like him more.”
Hurley grew up in San Francisco and graduated from high school in 1972. Not certain about a career path, he “bumped around,” spending time at community college and taking a job with the Teamsters. After saving a little money he bought an old van and set off for a few months of traveling around the United States.
“To make money for gas I started working at hotels and restaurants part time,” he said. “Beyond the money, I also got fed and I found that I really enjoyed cooking, so when I got back home I enrolled in the culinary program at City College.”
After graduating from culinary school, Hurley headed to Europe, India and North Africa, where for two years he toured, cooked and learned how food and culture were intertwined.
“For me, getting to know the culture was a great introduction to the food,” he said. “If you understand how people live, then you understand why they are eating what they are eating. So that was really an important step for me. When I came home and I needed to cook a dish from Southern France, I knew what that meant — I had lived it and it was in my blood.”
Coming back to the United States in the early 1980s, Hurley found work at the recently opened Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford, where he cooked under Masataka (“Masa”) Kobayashi, moving with nearly the entire team to San Francisco when Masa’s restaurant opened there. After that, like many other successful chefs at that time, he spent a couple of years under the tutelage of Jeremiah Tower, former chef of Chez Panisse, at his San Francisco restaurant, Stars, before heading out again to travel the world.
“It was sort of what I did: work for a few years gaining experience from a broad range of culinary talents and approaches, and then I’d travel around for a few years,” he said. “After Stars, my girlfriend (now wife) and I traveled through Asia and Malaysia. At a point in the trip, we just became travel- fatigued and decided to go back home and get serious.”
They moved back to Yountville in the early 1990s, and Hurley went to work at Domaine Chandon’s restaurant, which was led by executive chef Philippe Jeanty. He next became head chef at the Napa Valley Grill for nine years before opening his own restaurant in the center of town.
“I had come to know and love this community and I felt like it was home,” Hurley said. “We always wanted to be a place where locals felt comfortable and welcomed, a place that wasn’t trendy but provided consistently good food in a warm atmosphere, surrounded by friends. So when this space opened up it was perfect.”
With a growing family (a partner and two children), Hurley knew he needed to focus on becoming a successful businessperson. That meant giving up his earlier intermittently nomadic lifestyle.
“As any chef knows, there is no substitute for being present at your restaurant,” Hurley said. “My normal workweek was from Monday to Saturday, and I worked from about 6 a.m. to 7 or 8 p.m. every day. I tried to pull back over the years, but I always felt better being involved with my team, and the customers seemed to appreciate it, too.”
A key to Hurley’s success has been the strong support of locals, many of whom have been coming to the restaurant since it opened.
“I am thrilled for Bob, although I am sad to think his restaurant — which is a local gem — will no longer be an option for all of us who have loved it over the years,” said Cyndi Gates, a local real estate broker. “Dining here you might see anyone from the community having a meal or chatting at the bar.”
“One of my hopes is to explore some of my hobbies that have been on the back burner,” Hurley said. “I plan on doing a lot more traveling, hiking, kayaking and fly-fishing. I also hope to spend more time hanging out with my family and friends. For years, I’ve been having short conversations before running back into the kitchen, but soon I’ll have more time to just sit and talk — even relax a little at a barbecue.”
One of the most popular events at Hurley’s was their annual tradition of holding summer barbecues that included a variety of grilled items and shared wines.
“It’s actually hard to find a bad meal in the Napa Valley, and especially in Yountville,” Hurley said. “But I’m really careful predicting the future of cuisine in the Napa Valley. Every time I think we might be at maximum capacity for restaurants, some new place opens and does really well. That said, there is a moment when the density of new restaurants becomes too high, resulting in some businesses not being able to hit their margins.”
But having sold his restaurant, Hurley can leave behind any worries about profitability, menu development, staffing, ingredient procurement or broken dishwashers and instead take some time to relax and reflect.
“My hope is that we brought some joy, comfort and fun to the community,” he said. “This is such a special place, and the people have supported and encouraged me to become whatever it is I have become. We’ve been happy to give back where we can.”
As a part of that giving back. he and his wife have been active in the community, serving on boards, providing donations, support and food to those in need, and even holding annual etiquette classes for the young students of Yountville’s Elementary School.
“People often said how nice it was that we worked with the kids on table etiquette,” Hurley said. “But, really, it was just so much fun to be around them with all their excitement and curiosity.”
The toll of being on his feet nearly every day for 12 to 14 hours is that Hurley has plans for hip-replacement surgery, after which he plans to hit the hiking trail with his wife just as soon as he is able.
“Oh my gosh, I am so excited to have more time with my husband,” Cynthia said. “Our kids are grown and out of college, we have our home and some time to travel. I can promise you I have no ‘Honey-do list’ for him to complete because he’s done enough. Now it’s time for us to take some time to recover and then have some serious fun.”
As Hurley talked, not five minutes had passed without a guest or passerby coming to congratulate the nearly retired chef. Each time Hurley would greet them warmly, often with a long hug. Invariably the individuals would step back and might gently shake their heads, a few growing visibly emotional.
“My family and I are happy to begin our next adventure, but I will miss our team and I will miss our customers, our friends — I am grateful to them and everyone in our community who has supported us,” he said, and then paused and looked around the busy restaurant.
When he turned back, he smiled as he nodded his head slowly. “We will miss it, really miss it. But it’s time.”
ST. HELENA — One of St. Helena’s best-kept secrets is a secluded little area near the Napa River where some of the town’s friendliest residents come together to socialize, exercise and enjoy the outdoors.
They even bring their humans along for fun.
“The neatest people in the whole wide world come here,” said Joan Rogers, a regular visitor to the dog park tucked behind Wappo Park off College Avenue. “It just takes them a long time to the find the place.”
On a recent morning at the park, a colorful cast of non-human characters quickly asserted themselves. There’s Lola, a Dachsund that everyone calls a drama queen; Mara, an irrepressible Basenji with infinite reserves of energy; Izzy, a Spinone who likes to play frisbee with Mara; and Lucy, a sweet-natured beagle/terrier.
Mary and Ron Sproat bring Izzy to the park almost every morning. She’s only 1 year old, and without a daily outing her energy level “drives me nuts,” Mary Sproat said. But after going to the park, “she goes home and collapses and really settles down for awhile.”
Sproat is surprised by how many people in town don’t know about the park, which opened in 2011. She and other regulars are eager to spread the word that a community is forming there — not just of dogs, but of people from diverse backgrounds who’ve met there and become friends.
Joan Rogers brings Lucy every morning and every night. Sometimes there are 12 other dogs cavorting there and sometimes there are none.
When Lucy was first getting used to the park, she used to “try to rip anyone apart who tried to come in, she was so dog-shy,” Rogers remembered. Now Lucy relishes the chance to see her friends.
“She sits there and waits for people to come,” Rogers said. “So it’s a really good way to train these little dogs.”
As a car pulled into the nearby parking lot of the Napa Valley College Upper Valley Campus, Mara, Izzy and Lucy hurried over to the gate and stood at alert, sensing that more playmates were on the way. Soon they were jumping excitedly as Betsy Holzhauer was led through the gate by Fred, a park regular, and Oreo, a newcomer who’s still getting used to the place.
Fred started socializing with the other dogs right away, but Oreo steered clear of Mara’s frenzied antics in favor of a friendly lap.
Dogs owners do their part to maintain the park, picking up stray balls and filling in any holes their dogs dig when they catch the scent of – well, nobody can be sure, but probably gophers.
But while the regulars are glad to pitch in, they hope that raising the park’s public profile will make it a higher priority for the city’s thinly stretched parks staff.
At the top of their wish list are more shade trees – Ron Sproat said it gets “hotter than a 98-cent toaster” in the summer – and a fully functioning water fountain. The current one got thrown out of whack during the last freeze, although knowledgeable regulars know how to make it gush if need be.
When he visited the park, Recreation Director André Pichly said the fountain should be fixed soon, and the St. Helena Beautification Foundation is working with the city to plant some trees. Sixty yards of bark will be delivered next week, and the city is considering new signs to direct people to the park.
“If people want to see the city start putting some resources into developing this, we just have to show that it’s being used,” Pichly said. “If more people are using it, the City Council will probably sign off on (improvements), and I know (the Parks and Recreation Commission) will endorse it.”
Until then, Mara, Izzy, Lola, Lucy, Fred and Oreo will keep enjoying the park, hoping every day that more canines and their humans will sniff it out.
The artworks beautifying a Napa shopping center opening later this year will be as local as its shoppers.
A pair of abstract sculptures crafted from stainless steel will adorn the entrance and garden courtyard of the Mayacamas Shops, at the southeast corner of California Boulevard and Permanente Way in north Napa. The works by the St. Helena-based artist Adam Wiedmann won approval from the city Planning Commission on Thursday, and may be crafted over six to eight weeks in time for the opening of the retail complex as early as this summer. Leasing efforts at the center are ongoing.
A Napa ordinance requires those seeking to build large-scale developments to set aside at least 1 percent of their budget for on-site art, or else contribute 1 percent of the project’s total value to a city fund to pay for artworks elsewhere.
Owners of the Mayacamas Shops project initially paid into to the public art fund but then agreed to add sculptures to the site as the site plans became clearer, said city assistant planner Michael Gibbons.
The commission went to Wiedmann, a western Massachusetts native who moved to the Napa Valley in 2014 and opened Wiedmann Sculpture Studios in St. Helena. His works have appeared in galleries and exhibitions across North America and are marked by their stainless-steel construction, heat treatment at 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit that produces a dark bronze-like finish, and abstract shapes inspired by nature.
Wiedmann’s works for the Mayacamas Shops will cost about a combined $70,000 and include a 9-foot-tall elliptical ring pointed at the top, which will go on display at the California Boulevard entrance.
Inspiration for the ring-like sculpture – which, like all of Wiedmanns’ works, is untitled – arose from his seeing the round shape of intersecting branches on a tree, according to the artist, who said later Thursday the pattern “struck me as (representing) a circle of life.”
“I always find myself finding certain lines that catch my eye, and then I try to put it together, but in a new form,” said Wiedmann.
A second, 8-foot-tall piece composed of three rounded blocks stacked atop one another will be placed in a triangular “art garden” area and is inspired by rock formations in nature, he added.
The arrival of outdoor art at a gathering space far from downtown tourist attractions is a sign that more developers are taking seriously the esthetics of public places across the city, according to Commissioner Gordon Huether.
“We’ve had our art ordinance for years, and now we’re really starting to see the fruit of that ordinance in bringing another layer of beauty to our community,” said Huether, a longtime local sculptor, before the unanimous vote.
Paul Kelley praised builders’ willingness to do more than the minimum Napa’s art ordinance requires, even on a property far from downtown hotels and highly visible attractions. “I’m encouraged that the developers are not just writing a check to put art somewhere,” he said.
AMERICAN CANYON — It took a marathon closed-door meeting Friday night, but the City Council finally came to terms with Jason Holley, appointing him as American Canyon’s permanent city manager.
Holley, 41, who was at one time the public works director, was elevated to interim city manager in October, following the announcement that Dana Shigley would retire from her post.
After conducting a six-month search for Shigley’s replacement, the council decided to take the “interim” off Holley’s title and give him a three-year contract to serve as city manager.
“I’m excited to continue on this journey with the council, and where we’re going,” said Holley Friday night after councilmembers unanimously approved his appointment.
“I’m excited to be here and to grow with this community, and I’m grateful for the opportunity that the council has given me. I think I’ve shown my abilities in the last six months and in the time previously as public works director.”
Mayor Leon Garcia said to Holley: “Good to have you on board, sir.” He added that the city is in good hands under “Mr. Holley’s very capable leadership.”
The council had originally planned to appoint Holley as city manager during its regular meeting on April 3.
But the two sides failed to complete their negotiations in closed session over Holley’s contract, and decided to meet again Friday beginning at 5 p.m.
Also, Councilmember David Oro was absent from the April 3 meeting. He was present Friday, when the five councilmembers, Holley and City Attorney William Ross spent three hours huddled in a conference room on the second floor of City Hall hashing out details and terms.
Shortly after 8 p.m. they filed into the council chambers, which was almost entirely vacant, and spent less than 15 minutes meeting in open session to approve Holley’s appointment and his employment agreement.
Holley’s base annual salary will be $198,598.40. That figure is higher than the interim city manager’s salary of $189,389, according to the city’s salary schedule for public employees approved in October.
But it is lower than the listed salary for the permanent city manager of $204,835, per the same salary schedule.
Holly’s contract also calls for annual 2 percent cost-of-living-adjustments each July, and he is eligible for a one-time 3 percent bonus if he meets certain criteria spelled out in his contract following performance reviews conducted on a periodic basis with the City Council.
“I’m grateful for everything, their faith in me and giving me this opportunity,” said Holley when asked if he was satisfied with his new contract. “It’s everything I’ve asked for, and I think I’ll deliver on their expectations.”
Holley later clarified that he did not mean to say that he received everything he sought during negotiations, but characterized the contract as “a fair compensation package” and that “both parties are happy” with it.
Another person who may soon be happy is Steve Hartwig, who has served as interim public works director since October.
Hartwig was Holley’s top deputy in public works when Holley moved into the city manager’s seat.
Holley said Friday that he is inclined to make Hartwig the permanent public works director based on his performance.
“He’s been doing an amazing job,” Holley said. “We’re not going to be making any radical changes right now. He’s the perfect person to bring into that role and do it full-time.”
Hartwig served as deputy public works director since joining the department in April 2016.
Prior to joining the city of American Canyon last year, Hartwig was the director of public works/city engineer for the city of Vacaville, where he worked since 2013.
While with Vacaville, he oversaw the operation of the Public Works Department, including administration, engineering, development, capital projects, and operations and maintenance.