Out of sight is out of mind, and, the owner of a downtown Napa cafe fears, out of business soon.
Sixteen months after the earthquake, the Molinari Caffe on Brown Street still opens its doors six days a week, foams milk for its cappuccinos, pitches ghost chili mochas and All Else Fails sandwiches on its menu boards. Everything is seemingly in its place – except for customers, or a sufficient number to sustain the business.
For the cafe’s owner and namesake Rick Molinari, the problem is as hard to miss as his shop is hard to see.
Metal scaffolding that has encased Alexandria Square next door – the building whose tilted corner tower became an indelible image of Aug. 24, 2014 – blocks the view of the coffee shop from drivers and passers-by on Second Street. Chain-link fences in green netting and concrete barriers on Brown Street – which cordon off both Alexandria Square and a damaged law office on the other side of Molinari’s storefront – block caffeine lovers from directly approaching the front door, forcing them instead onto an improvised walkway on the pavement.
“With them closing the streets and putting up tarps, I couldn’t be seen, so I lost a lot of my afternoon and weekend traffic,” he told the Register in a mid-December interview. “People think we’re closed because of those K-rails. If you look at our place from an angle, we can’t be seen.”
Molinari has seen business fall off by about half, with the restricted access to the cafe and the loss of customers from the still-closed historic courthouse and other sites. Earlier this month, he shared his frustrations with city officials, warning that the cafe may close by the spring unless scaffolding is removed or fences are relocated.
The cafe set up shop on Brown Street in May 2014, moving from its original Main Street location. Business immediately doubled and sometimes tripled at the new, more visible site, the owner said in September.
Then the South Napa Earthquake shook downtown sideways, and Molinari’s business model with it.
Sustaining only the collapse of an air-conditioning duct, Rick Molinari reopened his cafe the following day. But city officials almost immediately ordered him to shut his doors again because both the neighboring buildings were far more heavily damaged. Napa then shut off the whole block of Brown Street, where the Alexandria Square tower was torn from its mooring and quake-crumbled masonry from a law office building owned by Brian Silver crushed a parked car.
Though the progress of repairs has since allowed Napa to reopen Brown Street, the continued existence of barriers, fences and scaffolding still forms a virtual moat keeping customers away, Molinari told the City Council Dec. 1.
“The street’s open but no one really drives down it,” he said of Brown Street, where the walkway to the cafe occupies curbside parking spaces and a chicane separates two closely packed vehicle lanes.
Money that Molinari hoped to use on a planned sports bar in Napa has instead been pumped into keeping the coffee shop afloat until the barriers come down, the owner told officials.
“I’ve put $100,000 of my own money to keep my shop open,” he told councilmembers. “I’m frustrated and trying to figure out why it’s taken so long to have Silver and DeSimoni let me use the entire street.”
Despite rent assistance from the building owner Mark Grassi, he added, the cafe is unlikely to stay open much past March without changes on Brown Street.
“I’ve lost two employees; I’m closing on Sundays,” Molinari told the council. “Ever since the barriers went up I’ve been losing $500 or $600 a day.”
Last week, Mike DeSimoni, owner of the Alexandria Square, said its scaffolding should come off by the first week in January.
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The building, a Mission Revival work that opened as a hotel in 1910, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Restoring and reopening Alexandria Square has required searching for historically correct bricks, window frames and other fixtures, steps DeSimoni said have added at least four months to the repair time.
“We consulted the (Napa County) Historical Society,” he said Tuesday of the project, estimated to cost $2 million. “We took the steps and details to have it just like it was before, except better constructed. … We are proud people — we built the Riverfront — so we went all the way on this building to fix it the right way.”
Cleanup and repairs at Alexandria Square required scaffolding wide enough to prevent dust and debris from escaping to nearby streets, according Rick Tooker, the city’s community development director.
“Once the exterior work is complete and they can take the scaffold down, (barricading) can be done in a way that doesn’t require taking the entire sidewalk and then some,” he said.
Silver, the owner of three buildings on the other side of the coffee shop, had one of the structures — the York Building, which once housed Napa’s City Council chamber — torn down after the earthquake. An architect has penned a five-floor building to replace it and the still-standing Center Building, but Silver said earlier this year that construction on his property is likely to take several years, partly due to preservation requirements for the surviving historic buildings.
“I would like this done as soon as possible, but this is a long, long project,” he said of the plan, which he estimated would cost $20 million. “The time frame I’ve been reading is five years for similar projects. It’s incredible how long these things take.”
Despite the wall of pipes, coverings and barriers, Silver suggested the true cause of the cafe’s troubles is to be found on the other side of Brown Street.
“The reason his business is suffering is because the courthouse is closed,” he said of the reduced customer flow. “I don’t think that many more people would go to his business no matter what you do with the street. Everyone that wants to go to that business is doing it.”
Workers will take apart the Center Building’s facade of about 1,300 stones – some weighing up to 200 pounds – categorize them by number and location, then reassemble them later as part of the replacement building, according to Ed Cull, a contractor working with Silver.
“I can’t go any faster because I’m working with a zero-lot-line building (a structure built right up to the property line),” he said. “And I’m taking down brick and stone and you can’t use (power) equipment to do that, so I have to take it down by hand. What else do you do?”
The plan is likely to go before the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission in mid-January, and approval would launch a 2½-month disassembly, after which workers can remove or move back fences on Brown Street for better access, Cull said Wednesday. New barriers would go up a few months later when construction on the successor building begins, he added.
In the meantime, every day without a clear path to the cafe, by eyeball or foot, is another day when would-be customers fail to show.
While laying off staff and closing on Sundays, Molinari has tried other steps to bring customers to his boxed-in cafe. Food from other local restaurants has joined the menu, and the owner is turning to catering, rentals of his conference room, and the pursuit of a wine and beer license.
Whether the changes will help him stay in business remains to be seen, however, especially with no reopening in sight for the courthouse building that once produced a stream of customers from across the street.
“The biggest thing is, how do I do it with payroll going up?” said Molinari, who has hired two attorneys to guide his next steps. “And I foresee the courthouse across from us probably not being worked on for another two or three years.”
“If I can look left and right and not see them, how can people see me?”