Napa Valley restaurants are finding it increasingly difficult to hire and retain qualified personnel. The causes are partly driven by the high cost of living but also appear linked to broader trends: lack of affordable housing, higher-paying alternative careers (e.g., construction) and slowing local population growth. These trends are exacerbated when coupled with the increasing number of Napa Valley tourists, resorts, restaurants and wineries.
“Everyone is dealing with staffing issues — it’s unsustainable,” said Richard Reddington, whose popular Yountville Redd restaurant closed in October.
These local challenges appear to be part of a broader national phenomenon. In 2017 the National Restaurant Association reported that nearly 40 percent of its members listed labor recruitment as their top challenge, which was up from only 15 percent in 2015.
However, the impact is perhaps hitting independent Napa Valley restaurants the hardest: So far in 2018 five well-liked eateries have closed with each of their owners pointing, at least in part, to the difficulties of finding and retaining qualified staff.
Beyond the closings, new restaurant openings have been delayed, and some eateries are scrapping or have modified their business models toward less-labor-intensive alternatives, while some of the valley’s finest expert culinarians have packed their bags.
The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) reports that Napa County had 62 Type 47 restaurant permits in 2008. In 2018 there are 82 such permits, a 32 percent increase. However, these are not the only permits that allow the sale of food, and so according to the Visit Napa Valley website, there are actually now 188 places to dine in the valley.
Since 2010, wineries can serve food to pair with their wine offerings. There were 557 Type 02 winery licenses in Napa County in 2008, according to the ABC, and a total of 1,616 such licenses in 2018 (a 190 percent increase). Some wineries have multiple 02 licenses — one for their winery and others for their tasting room(s). There are also hundreds of “caterer” licenses currently issued in Napa County.
According to a recent City of Napa Economic Development Division report, in 2017 there were 2,365 total hotel/resort rooms already existing in the city of Napa and the surrounding area. The report says lodging applications in process or in the conceptual design phase will increase that number to 4,783 (a 102 percent expected increase). Most of these hotels and resorts are also building new restaurants to serve their guests.
House prices are out of reach: according to Zillow, the median sold-price of a single-family home in Napa County in 2011 was $361,000 but in 2018 reached $706,000, a 95.5 percent increase. Compare that to the median sold-price of a single-family home in the United States in 2011, which was $152,000 and today is $235,000 — only a 54 percent increase.
The Napa Valley had about 2.9 million visitors in 2012, according to a Destination Analysis report, but that number grew to 3.5 million visitors in 2016, according to Visit Napa Valley data — a growth of more than 20 percent in four short years.
California census data reports the population of Napa County fell from 141,784 on Jan. 1, 2017, to 141,294 on Jan 1. 2018 — a 0.3 percent decrease.
What these numbers point to is a staggering increasing need for restaurant laborers while at the same time there is a stagnant or even shrinking pool of local talent.
Turnover in the restaurant business is nothing new, but here it’s different. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2016 the annual national turnover rate within the restaurant and accommodations sector was 72.9 percent, compared to 46.1 percent in the total U.S. private sector. However, Eater reported that a local study suggested that in 2017 Bay Area turnover for cooks was as high as 120 percent per year.
“Finding and keeping staff in the Napa Valley is at crisis levels,” said Tamer Hamawi, co-owner of Napa’s newly opened Gran Electrica. “We’ve given up placing ads because there is no point — it costs money and we don’t get any responses. Whereas in New York I get hundreds of applicants for a job opening, here I am lucky to get one or two.”
And even when applicants do come they might not stay long.
“Although we have been blessed with our staff staying, when we do need people it is very hard to find driven people,” said Bettina Rouas, owner of Napa’s Angèle Restaurant. “The people that do come in know that they are in high demand so they don’t try as hard to impress us. We have had multiple people come in, work a couple of days and then disappear.”
The scarcity is pushing some to modify their business concepts
“We haven’t had a bartender in months because no one is applying for the job — we basically don’t have the staff to accommodate our original concept,” said Douglas Keane, chef-owner of St. Helena’s Two Birds One Stone. “I have never seen it like this before.”
The result of the changing conditions for Keane is that he and his team have decided to transform what had been an Asian-fusion concept to an American-styled “Roadhouse 29” restaurant in early 2019.
“The new format will allow us to have a focused number of staff while at the same time retaining high quality,” Keane said.
When St. Helena’s The Charter Oak opened in 2017 the owners were well aware of the challenges of staffing and even built special tables to include silverware drawers so that patrons might replenish or replace knives or forks as they needed to.
“We had to rethink every step of the process,” said co-owner Nathaniel Dorn. “We place a pitcher of water on the table and guests are given a corkscrew and glasses when they bring in their own wines to drink — like if you were at your family’s home. It is possible to build a new model of high-quality service with fewer touchpoints, but it’s not easy and not everything works like you might have imagined.”
“Staffing has become the greatest challenge to every restaurant in the Napa Valley,” said Redd’s former general manager, Guy Rebentisch. “First it’s too expensive to live here for many — two of my staff drove in from Sacramento four or five times a week.”
St. Helena’s 30-year-old Michelin-starred Restaurant Terra closed this year.
“It (the closing) is mostly about staffing,” said Lissa Doumani, co-owner. “It is so difficult to find someone; there are so many more businesses opening, and housing is so limited and expensive.”
Doumani reported that one of their cooks drove from Danville (62 miles away).
“At the end of service these are horrible drives,” she said. “Add to that when our staff had to come to work — which is between 2 and 3:30 p.m. — the traffic is out of control and so there is more stress.”
Fires have only made the situation more dire.
“We used to get new folks coming in more from Lake County and Santa Rosa, but that’s pretty much dried up since the fires,” St. Helena’s Cook chef, Ryder Zetts, said before moving to Nashville for a new chef position, citing staff challenges as one of the main reasons for leaving.
The Napa Valley is no longer a must-stop on a culinarian’s journey.
Whereas the Napa Valley used to be one of only a few critical destinations for any serious restaurant professional’s curriculum vitae, that has changed, further reducing the pool of applicants.
“A decade ago if you were serious about being a chef or sommelier you needed to have San Francisco, New York or the Napa Valley on your resume,” said Chris Cosentino, chef-owner of St. Helena’s Acacia House. “But now nearly every city has its own vibrant food culture, and so people can work where the cost of living is lower or in a city that’s closer to their families. Cities like Austin, Portland, Seattle, Boulder, Charlotte and Nashville have become culinary destinations in their own rights.”
Although the entire Bay Area is facing challenges finding restaurant staff, the Napa Valley is facing something that other areas are not: A new competitor has entered the ring.
“(Yountville’s) Redd’s closing says a lot about the changing dynamics of dining in the valley,” said Chris Blanchard, a master sommelier who worked at Redd from 2005 to 2008. “Restaurants have to compete with so many wineries that are now offering food pairings and lunches, with in-house chefs creating menus to keep their visitors engaged. Tourists aren’t necessarily interested in a big dinner or fancy lunch when they can have a food experience at the winery. It’s really tough on restaurants now.”
Pressured by wineries that were seeking new ways to attract customers during the Great Recession, in 2010 the Napa County Board of Supervisors approved wineries to include food in their tastings. In the modified version — Ordinance No. 1340 — the phrase “Marketing of wine” was allowed to “include food service, including food and wine pairings, where all such food service is provided without charge except to the extent of cost recovery.”
Anticipating how the change might be abused, the supervisors added language that “Food service may not involve menu options and meal service such that the winery functions as a café or restaurant.”
However, wineries have gotten around this restriction. The Prisoner, Constellation’s new winery, has a $125 pairing that includes five courses, one of which is A5 Wagyu Beef, which certainly doesn’t take a backseat to a $45 wine. They also have two kitchens and six chefs on staff. And they are not the only ones. Nearly all of the major wineries (and many so-called “virtual wineries”) have pushed this nearly unenforced new ordinance to the point where the blurring of restaurants and wineries is becoming indistinguishable.
When wineries function as restaurants there are a host of impacts. The first is that the number of competitors increases, but because the wineries are not “charging” for the food, they treat these meal-events as marketing expenses. The chefs and staff who work at these wineries are recruited from the restaurant labor pool, and their compensation and their schedules can be more like a 9-to-5 job than a comparable restaurant position.
Go to places like Yountville’s Mustards Grill and Ciccio, St. Helena’s Cook or Napa’s Angele and you are likely to find them busy, with at least a few locals thrown into the mix. At these places you’ll find that the food is consistently very good, that the owners are often there and that the staff has been around longer than a few months and they likely remember your name.
“The reason this place has been so successful and able to keep its staff is because Bettina — who we call ‘Momma’ — has created a culture where the staff and customers are like family,” said Patrick Kelly, Angèle’s executive chef.
“We spend a lot of time with our staff, mentoring, teaching and investing in them,” Rouas said. “We are willing to put the time and effort into people who might not have a lot of experience but show a lot of potential. We truly care about our employees. We also give them structure, which is not for everyone. But I feel structure keeps people in line and striving for perfection.
“We also do small things like fill the candy drawer on weekends, we celebrate everyone’s birthday and have pizzas on busy days — these are small things, but I feel they create a positive environment.”
The Thomas Keller Group has half a dozen eateries in Yountville. From the highest of the high-end French Laundry to his newest tacos-and-tequila yet-to-open restaurant (the opening rumored to have been delayed by an inability to find staff), TKG has not only reached a level of culinary creations that is the envy of the world, they’ve also found that concentration and coverage of customers’ needs seem synergistic.
Brasswoods restaurant in St. Helena has found an interesting angle, bridging the worlds of wine and food. In 2016 the owners, Edwin and Stacia Williams, hired Marcus Marquez, former general manager at Goose & Gander in St. Helena, to reimagine an ailing complex that included a winery, mall, bakery and restaurant. Marquez rebranded the site, brought in the crew from the closed St. Helena Restaurant Tra Vigne (who brought with them a collection of local customers, too) and went about transforming the location into a hub for food and wine.
“We have 26 custom-crush clients at the winery and also serve their wines here at the restaurant — It’s a win-win,” Marquez said. “We also invest in our people — we have a 401(k) program and we support training and education. What the young people want to know is, ‘Where is this going in five years?’ They are concerned about working toward something meaningful, not just receiving a paycheck.”
In what seems less about food and more about an eco-focused experience, St. Helena’s Farmstead has grown into what amounts to a small village with gardens, indoor and outdoor dining, a coffeehouse and open spaces for events such as movies, music and discussions that are held right alongside people enjoying dinner. Every restaurant in the Napa Valley can’t afford such a vision, but all restaurateurs can learn something by observing how customers and staff interact with this unique environment.
There are generally three camps when it comes to the staffing crisis within the Napa Valley: grow, shrink or change (or some combination of these). For example, there are those who believe that if we put the brakes on what has been significant growth we’d be able to catch our breath and find some equilibrium. Some believe that we can just grow our way out of the problem, adding even more wineries, restaurants and attractions. Nearly everyone points to adding more low-cost housing (e.g., local measures to raise the hotel tax on the Nov. 6 ballot) yet most communities are finding pushback from the neighbors when plans actually surface.
There are those who believe technology and switching to “fast-casual” or self-service models will fix the problem. However, without innovative chefs and high-quality food-service professionals the highly regarded Napa Valley food culture will diminish.
One solution might be staring the Napa Valley in the face. St. Helena’s Culinary Institute of America at Greystone graduates roughly 60 young, highly motivated and well-trained culinarians every three months. Yet nearly all of them leave the area, mostly because they can’t find an affordable place to live. What if the Napa Valley community came together and found a solution to help keep them around?
Calistoga and Napa are attempting such action, but given the pushback in St. Helena when such a solution was presented to the community it might be tough. In the short term, if I owned a restaurant in the valley I’d be courting these graduates and others like them as if my success depended on it.
Nothing says Christmas like an all-tuba symphony.
At least that’s what fans of TubaChristmas hope to say in the coming years as they try to cement the concert as a Napa tradition.
TubaChristmas is pretty much what you might expect from the name — a group of musicians who play instruments in the tuba family come together to play Christmas carols. This year marks the 45th anniversary since its inception in Rockefeller Plaza and its third anniversary in Napa, though concerts are held worldwide.
TubaChristmas is not a widely known phenomenon in California, but it has groupies like Roz Plotzker of Oakland, a fan since 2006. It was her first time coming to Napa’s concert, but she’s seen the show in Philadelphia and New York.
“It sounds like whales singing Christmas carols,” she said. “What’s not to like?”
Tuba players, or tubists, are normally stuck in the back, said Alan Parks, Napa High music teacher and conductor of Napa’s TubaChristmas, but an event like this gives them a chance to shine.
“This really just puts a big smile on my face,” Parks said. “We get a really nice moment in the sun from this, and that does not happen very often.”
Napa’s TubaChristmas was organized with the help of the city Parks and Recreation Services department and the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Napa, where the show was sheltered from any rain that may have hindered the performance. The event was originally scheduled to be held in Veterans Memorial Park along the downtown waterfront where it has been held in the past, but organizers didn’t want to take any chances with the weather.
Nearly 20 musicians gathered from Napa, Sacramento, Santa Rosa and other parts of the Bay Area to play heavy brass instruments of many shapes and sizes, such as euphoniums, baritone horns or tubas.
“It’s just nice to be able to play with all the brass,” said musician and Napa resident Rick Lovie.
Almost every musician dressed in red or green, or in Christmas sweaters. Some were dressed in official TubaChristmas beanies or scarves. One musician dressed as Santa.
Saturday’s performers said they liked playing at TubaChristmas because it gives them a chance to play the melody.
“It’s a lot more fun if you can hear yourself,” said Jacob Chadwick, who played the tuba for the Vintage High band. “Normally, you’re told to back off.”
The acoustics of the church turned out to be better than Veterans Memorial Park, performers said. The heavy bass filled the room and reverberated off the walls and floors. The floor and church pews shook ever so slightly.
“It’s fun because that low register really resonates, especially in a room like the sanctuary of a church,” said tubist Joe Martin, who came from Sebastopol.
Brian Munger of San Francisco has played in Napa’s TubaChristmas each year.
“It was different,” Munger said. “That’s what kind of intrigued me in the first place.”
Though TubaChristmas is new to Napa, it’s already become a holiday tradition for Camille Sanchez and her grandmother, Colette Jotter.
Sanchez loves to hear her grandmother sing along. “Frosty the Snowman” is Sanchez’s favorite because she can picture Frosty hopping with the low notes of the song.
It seems to conductor Parks that TubaChristmas is starting to build a regular fan base of people like Sanchez. He recognizes familiar faces when he scans the crowd.
So is TubaChristmas here to stay?
“If we’re going on three, I figure that’s starting in on tradition territory,” Parks said.
ANGWIN — As flames from the Camp Fire roared toward the town of Paradise the morning of Nov. 8, the students of Paradise Adventist Academy had just started school for the day.
By the time evacuation notices came, the fire had already reached the edge of town, and many of the students at PAA had time to grab only bare essentials, if anything at all.
Since then, life has been anything but ordinary. Many PAA students lost their homes and for the past three weeks have had little stability in their lives. A majority are still living out of suitcases while crashing on a friend’s couch or staying in a hotel.
But for the boys and girls basketball teams of PAA, life stabilized a bit this weekend. The Cougars made the trip to the small Seventh-day Adventist community in Angwin, tucked in the hills of the Napa Valley, for a basketball tournament on the campus of Pacific Union College. Even though the tournament only runs two days, simply playing basketball again and spending time with teammates, many of whom lost everything, has given these students a relief from the chaotic reality many of them now face.
“Us playing sports is like the one normal thing we have in our lives right now,” said Samantha Sayegh, a senior on the girls PAA team who lives in Chico and was evacuated but did not lose her home. “When you’re out on the court, you really aren’t thinking about anything other than the game. So it’s super nice to have that.”
But this break from reality almost didn’t happen. Officially, this tournament is hosted by PAA, but the event was initially canceled because the fire damaged the school’s campus.
Then PUC Prep, the K-12 school affiliated with Pacific Union College, called and volunteered to host the event and donate all concessions back to Paradise and PAA. On Friday, that plan two weeks in the making finally came to fruition.
“The amount of generosity and love that they’ve shown us is so overwhelming that it kind of balances out or even takes over the fact that we’re so sad about Paradise,” said Stacy Wisener, a sophomore at PAA who is currently living out of a friend’s pool house in Chico after she lost her home in the fire. “It’s overwhelming. It really is.”
Out of the six members of the PAA girls basketball team, half lost their homes. On the boys team, seven of the 12 lost theirs.
“(These last few weeks have) been a little chaotic, a little overwhelming at times but we’re glad we’re here,” said Jason Eyer, PAA director of athletics and head coach of both the boys and girls basketball teams. “It gives us an opportunity to take our minds off of what’s going on at home a little bit. It’s been a little rough, for some more than others, obviously. ”
Eyer, an alumnus of PUC, could see smoke rising in the distance as he drove to PAA the morning of Nov. 8. He, like many of the students, didn’t think much of it. Wildfires were not uncommon in the area, and many students have been evacuated multiple times in their lives.
It wasn’t until PAA was fully evacuated and Eyer was getting to ready to leave himself when the reality of the situation hit him.
“You could see the glow from the fire getting closer and closer,” he said. “I could hear propane tanks exploding a ways away still, but that’s when I realized this isn’t good; it’s coming into town.”
The fire began east of Paradise and at its fastest, spread at the rate of a football field per second.
Shortly after PAA got its notice to evacuate, senior Carson Cummings headed to the east side of town to help a friend and his family evacuate. When he got there, his friend’s neighbor’s house was already ablaze.
“That’s when I realized how serious this was,” he said at PUC on Friday.
Cummings followed his friend’s family north on Pentz Road before getting stuck in gridlocked traffic. As he sat alone in his car, embers fell around him, igniting nearby trees and brush.
“I was on the phone with my brother and he was trying to calm me down, just because I was on my own,” he said. “At that point I wasn’t thinking, ‘I’m going to die.’”
Cummings then called his dad, who happened to be working in Paradise that day. He told his son he would meet him at the K-Mart a mile away. Cummings was still stuck in traffic so his dad gave him simple but urgent directions: run.
Cummings abandoned his car on the side of the road as the trees on the opposite side of Pentz Road ignited. The wind whipped embers all around him as he made his way through the darkness of the smoke, guided only by the headlights of the cars still left on the road and the growing inferno around him.
“It was the sound – the roar of it – it’s deafening,” he said. “You could feel the warmth on your skin.”
He fought his way through the blackness with his jacket pressed over his face to shield himself from the smoke. Eventually, he met up with his dad, but the two fought more gridlock traffic as thousands of people tried to flee the unrelenting blaze. Cummings estimated it took them three and a half hours to travel the four miles to the city limits.
But even then, they were not safe. They were diverted south to Neal Road, one of the only other viable exits out of town. Once again, they got stuck in traffic, but this time the pace was slower, and the fire was again suddenly gaining on them. They abandoned their car and took off by foot, stopping only to cram into the backseat of a stranger’s car. The stranger gave them a ride all the way to Chico where they reunited with the rest of their family.
Cumming’s mother only had time to grab the family’s pets, a computer and a few photo albums. Everything else is gone.
“Everything I’m wearing right now is new,” he said on Friday.
Gene Keller, a realtor and retired volunteer firefighter whose son plays for Paradise Adventist Academy, has experienced his fair share of fires, but nothing compared to what he saw that day.
“People talk about forest fires, that’s one thing,” he said on Friday with a shaky voice. “But you hear comments of a fire storm where everything is just out of control, where fire is just going every which way and doing its own thing. Just total destruction. That’s what this was.”
Keller and his family got out of Paradise before their area was given the order to evacuate. He had been tipped off by a friend in the Sheriff’s Department that they needed to leave – now.
“Just the chaos and panic of everybody,” he said, “it was just surreal.”
Keller can only assume his house is gone. He hasn’t been back since they evacuated and he and his family have spent the last few weeks staying with relatives.
He does know, however, that one of his agents at his realty business, Paula Dodge, did not make it out of Paradise. Keller said Dodge and her husband’s bodies were found on their property.
“That’s the biggest thing that hurts,” Keller said. “Everything else I can rebuild.”
The Paradise Post reported on Friday that the city hopes to reopen parts of the town to residents starting next week.
Keller said he wants to rebuild, but also said that his son, Josh, will be at the forefront of his thinking about whatever he decides.
“It is what it is,” Keller said. “You can sit here and feel sorry for yourself or you can wake up the next day and say ‘OK, what do I need to do?’ And like I said, I have everything that really is important to me.
“I’ve lost, but I haven’t lost.”
While the recovery and rebuilding efforts may take years, the Paradise Adventist Academy community took small steps this week. They had their first classes since the fire on Monday at an Adventist school in Chico, and on Tuesday they played their first basketball game of the season before travelling to Angwin for this weekend’s tournament.
Keller pointed to Eyer as another stabilizing factor in the student’s lives. With so much turmoil, it would have been simpler to just cancel the tournament entirely. Adding another 100-plus miles of travel to already weary minds could do more harm than good.
But Eyer made his decision because of what he felt sports could offer his kids: a distraction from all the horror they’ve endured.
“I just try to tell them, as their coach, that we can at least forget about that stuff while we’re doing this in the hour and a half, two hours that we have practice. The time that we have games; this should be a chance for us to escape from those things outside of it,” Eyer said on Friday. “The basketball time has really been a good time to forget about that stuff that has to be done. Especially for them, figuring out ‘where am I going to go tonight? What are we having for dinner tonight?’ all those things.
“Hopefully this is a reprieve from all of that. ... It’s bringing people together as a team and allowing an opportunity for us to be together as a family.”