Renowned chef Cindy Pawlcyn is closing Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, a standout in the St. Helena food scene since 2002, on July 7.
“It was a surprise to me,” Pawlcyn said. “Somebody made me an offer [on the building] – I can’t talk about it, it’s confidential … but I had to take off my chef’s hat and put on my businesswoman’s hat and it made perfect sense … I guess you could say he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse – in a good way.”
Pawlcyn, a James Beard Award-winning chef and author with a dozen restaurants to her credit, will continue to operate Mustards Grill north of Yountville. She is planning to open a second Mustards Grill at San Francisco International Airport later this summer.
This is the second time in a month that an iconic St. Helena restaurant has closed its doors with little warning. In late May, owners Lissa Doumani and Hiro Sone abruptly shuttered Terra and Bar Terra, which had operated for 30 years. The former restaurant was next door to Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen on Railroad Avenue.
Doumani and Sone cited the impossibly tight labor market and lack of housing nearby as major factors in closing their restaurant. Not only was it difficult to find new staff, they said, it was difficult for current staff to find nearby housing, leaving them with long, hazardous drives after late-night shifts.
Pawlcyn said her situation was different than Terra; she had not planned to sell until she received an offer on the building about a month ago. She declined to say more about the buyer, but in a news release announcing the closing, she described the buyer as “a respected friend and local entrepreneur with a sound business offer.”
The liquor license assigned to Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen was part of the deal, the price of which she declined to disclose. That suggests the new business is likely to be a restaurant as well.
While she could not say more about the fate of the property, she said it was “in good hands.”
The restaurant employs about 40 full- or part-time workers, she said. Some of them will be continuing with Mustards Grill. For the rest, Pawylcyn is calling other chefs in the area to try to find her staff new jobs. Given the tight labor market, she said, she expects they will all find new jobs quickly.
Because the deal was still in negotiation, she was not able to inform staff members until Monday, less than a day before the closure was announced publicly.
“That was the hardest day in a long time,” she said.
She has also been calling her roster of regulars to tell them of the closure personally. She described them as “upset.”
Pawlcyn said the closure of Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen does not signal an end to her career, and that she could very well found new restaurants, though she plans to focus on the Mustards Grill brand for a while.
“I’ve never been able to sit still,” she said. “I’d be bad at retirement.”