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Business slowly picks up as St. Helena begins long economic recovery

Business slowly picks up as St. Helena begins long economic recovery

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The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t hurt demand for Model Bakery’s English muffins, but it’s still presenting challenges for St. Helena merchants and restaurateurs who’ve reopened in recent weeks.

“We’re probably at about 75 percent,” said Karen Mitchell at Model Bakery, which on top of COVID-19 took three months to recover from an oven fire at its Oxbow location in Napa. “We still miss the tourists on the weekend, and even during the week we don’t see the same traffic.”

Locals are still showing up though, and they’re buying in large quantities – including old favorites like English muffins, which Mitchell said are selling “like mad.”

“Everybody’s just so sick of being inside,” she said. “Any opportunity to get out is good. We’re encouraged by that.”

A few stores have closed since the pandemic began, including Jan de Luz, Style & Soul Boutique, and Material Movement/Napa Look. But most businesses seem to be soldiering on.

The tables at Gillwoods are bare of condiments, and some are kept vacant to allow for six feet of social distancing between diners. Only half of the dining room is being used, co-owner Debbie Fradelizio said on Monday.

“We’re sanitizing doors and bathrooms every 20 to 25 minutes,” she said. “The silverware is wrapped. We have paper menus. Everybody’s washing their hands constantly.”

The staff are all wearing masks, and the restaurant has extras available for customers who forget to bring their own. Once diners have been seated, they can remove their masks until they need to get up to leave or go to the bathroom.

“We just had our health inspection today,” Fradelizio added. “We passed with an A, which was a relief.”

For now, Gillwoods is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and only 75% of the staff is back. Fradelizio hopes to ramp back up once the wineries and hotels get going again.

“The problem with our business is day travelers are usually here too late to have breakfast,” she said. “So we’re really dependent on the community.”

According to the St. Helena Chamber of Commerce, which tracks the status of local businesses on its website, most of St. Helena’s hotels are open except for Salvestrin Inn (reopening Friday), Las Alcobas (reopening Aug. 1), and Southbridge (closed until further notice). But analysts say it could be years before the Napa Valley’s tourism industry fully recovers.

At That Pizza Place, business has bounced back solidly, especially among the locals who account for most of the restaurant’s business, said owner Kathryn Kenney.

Although there are still good and bad days, “the locals are back 100%,” Kenney said.

After being closed from March 20 to April 29, the family restaurant is fully staffed and open seven days a week. Its landlord gave it a significant discount on rent for the month it was closed.

“It helps that we’re not paying Main Street rent,” said Kenney, who rents a commercial space along Spring Street.

With many restaurants closed for the last few months, locals sharpened their home cooking skills. That’s translated into steady business at New West KnifeWorks, said store manager Dascia Skadal.

When the shop reopened on May 29, most of the customers were local. Starting last weekend, Skadal started seeing more people from the greater Bay Area.

“I’m thinking it could be a year (until foot traffic returns to normal),” she said. “We won’t have a normal harvest this year because people have already canceled their trips.”

And if you’d like to vent some of your coronavirus-related frustration on a big piece of wood, you’ll have to wait. New West’s popular tomahawk-throwing is on hold for now, Skadal said.

Across the street at Olivier Napa Valley, known for its olive oil, customers are happy to have the store open, even though business is only about 75% of normal.

“During the weekend it’s been pretty good,” said owner Kevin Buchholz. “During the week it’s been a little slower.”

Hygienic restrictions present unique challenges to stores like Olivier that offer free samples to entice customers.

“When people get a sample, they’re like ‘Oh my God, I have to have this.’ So without sampling, we have to just describe what something tastes like,” Buchholz said.

Customers are coming from places like San Francisco, Walnut Creek, Dublin and Sacramento, but no farther away than that. Buchholz said Olivier has gotten a lot of local support too. Mayor Geoff Ellsworth “comes in every other day to check up, which is really super-awesome,” he said.

Erin Morris of Fideaux reported a similar pattern: Bay Area customers on the weekends, 90% local during the week.

Rene Sculatti of Amelia Claire said her best months are usually April, May and October. This year, April sales were non-existent and May was a small fraction of normal.

“I need to get online somehow,” she said. “I have to reach out and find ways to get (customers) in. But I’m hanging in there.”

You can reach Jesse Duarte at 967-6803 or jduarte@sthelenastar.com.

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