Trading banter and friendly putdowns, a group of four Napa retirees enjoyed their breakfast at the Napa Gillwoods café last Wednesday morning.
“Best service and best coffee in town,” proclaimed Robert Mack of Circle Oaks, who sat with his friends at two tables pushed together.
Unfortunately, this was a “last breakfast” for the four and the other diners.
After 16 years and endless cups of coffee, the Napa Gillwoods restaurant served up its last plates of pancakes and Gillwoods Scrambles on Wednesday. Owners Ed Gill and Gary Woods announced in late 2012 they would retire this spring, close the Napa restaurant and move to live full-time in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. A second Gillwoods located in St. Helena remains open.
“It’s a big deal,” Gill said on Wednesday morning as he sat in a closed section of the café-bakery. “Sixteen years is a long time for a little restaurant.”
Normally, Woods manages the St. Helena Gillwoods and Gill the Napa version. But both Gill and Woods were on hand in Napa on Wednesday to say good-bye to their local customers and many long time staff.
“This whole week has been lots of people coming in to say good-bye,” Woods said. “Some have been in tears this whole time.”
Longtime customer Fred Brennan of Napa said he visits Gillwoods two to three times a week.
“I’m thankful for the good food but most of all I’m thankful for the friendships,” Brennan said. Gillwoods “reminds me of ‘Cheers’ where everybody knows your name.” His favorite meal was probably the Gillwoods Scramble, but just as often he’d ordered the steel-cut oatmeal.
“They really take care of me,” Brennan said. When asked where he’d eat breakfast the next day, Brennan seemed unprepared for that reality. “I haven’t thought of that,” he said.
“It’s a sad day for all of us,” Mack said.
“This is our table,” said one of Mack’s companions, Carl Wells. “We’re going to miss it. It’s going to be hard to duplicate” the setting and food.. “Where do we go?”
“We’ve eaten a lot of breakfasts here over the years,” said Phil Jerome, seated at the same table. While their favorite table isn’t named after them, restaurant staff always greeted the foursome with “your table is ready,” Jerome said.
“We always gave it four stars,” said David Gerig of Napa. “How many times have we eaten here?”
“it’s not crazy noisy,” he noted. His favorite menu item? Gerig didn’t hesitate. “I like the big pancakes,” he said.
Sandra Davis has been the manager at Gillwoods for five years. “I want to go sit in the corner and cry,” Davis said of the closure. “There’s so many people I’ve met and enjoyed working with. It’s like a family here.”
Davis said she does not have another job yet. “It’s going to be hard to walk out of here.”
Valerie Keenan is another longtime Gillwoods server. “It’s so sad,” she said of the closure. “We have so many regular customers. We’re sorry to see it go, but happy for Ed and Gary.”
Fortunately for Keenan, she’ll have an opportunity to see some of those customers again when she transfers to the St. Helena Gillwoods.
Gill didn’t have an immediate answer as to what the Napa restaurant had meant to him. “I’ve been so busy, it’s hard to stop and think about it,” he said. But after a pause, he said, “It’s been amazing.”
The business was born when Gill and Woods were recruited to create a restaurant in the mall by then- Town Center owners Al Walburg and Jim Apple. The businessmen told Gill and Woods they wanted a restaurant to draw shoppers into the First Street shopping center, Gill recalled.
In April 1997, Gillwoods, then half the size it would eventually become, opened with a bang.
“We were packed immediately,” said Woods. “We couldn’t provide enough seating.”
“It felt great,” said Gill. “We’d close at 3 p.m. and we’d be full,” with diners even in the late afternoon, “which was amazing.”
At the time, there weren’t too many other restaurants in the immediate area, he noted. With business booming, they expanded, twice, into adjacent spaces. The result was a long, narrow restaurant lined by booths.
Later, George Altamura and partners bought the mall. “We had a really good relationship with George Altamura,” Gill said. When the recession hit and Gillwoods’ rent was due to escalate, Altamura forgave $50,000 in rent over the course of a year, the two said. “He was very good to us,” Gill said.
In 2012, Todd Zapolski and partners bought the Town Center and announced plans to renovate and re-tenant the mall, now called the Shops at Napa Center. Zapolski told the duo he would have liked them to stay, but Gill said the 200-seat, 6,000 square-foot restaurant was too big for today’s economy, especially with all the other lunch options that are now part of downtown.
“We have a lot more competition,” especially for lunch, Gill said.
“And a big part of our business is lunch,” Woods said.
Since the recession, “it’s been discouraging. The money hasn’t been there like in the past,” Wood said. The restaurant infrastructure was aging, along with its owners, he said. “I’m looking forward to retiring,” said Woods, 65.
As the word spread in late 2012 that they would eventually close in 2013, business declined, Gill said. “People thought were already closed,” he said.
The two kept most of their staff on the payroll, but they stopped taking a salary from the business. Most of the employees have found other jobs to start once the Napa Gillwoods closes. Some are transferring to the St. Helena restaurant, which opened in 1991.
Meanwhile, everything is for sale, from the tables and chairs that hosted many a Sunday brunch, to the fixtures, kitchen equipment and even the art on the walls.
A manager will continue to run the St. Helena Gillwoods, while the two owners enjoy retired life in Mexico.
On Wednesday, it was only hours before the chefs in the back would hang up their aprons for good, but Gill was already looking forward to what would come next.
“I’m really excited to come back in a year and see what the Shops at Napa Center looks like,” Gill said. “I’ll always miss the restaurant, but I’m excited for Todd Zapolski and what he’s going to do.”