Eat + Drink » On the Table

Rio Dell Restaurants Reopen with Losses

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A determined person could eat at every restaurant in Rio Dell in a single day. Businesses along Wildwood Avenue took losses in the aftermath of the 6.4 earthquake that hit the tiny Eel River Valley town especially hard. Beyond the damage from the quake, like damaged equipment and dining rooms, the days without power and water made it impossible for most to operate and destroyed perishables stocked in refrigerators and freezers.

In an industry with already tight margins and inventory paid for up front, making it through the quake will be a challenge long after the shaking has stopped.

Shotz Coffee House manager Alek Fitze says, "At both shops, we lost a lot of inventory. We lost a lot of syrups because they fell and broke and were no fun to clean up." Microwaves fell and broke at both locations, and the Fortuna café had a busted water line and front windows. For a few days, staff shuttled Shotz's mobile cart between towns to serve customers, and once power was back, they were able to sell a limited menu inside, since the espresso machines automatically boil water. Since the clean water came back Dec. 28, they've been back to normal service and busy as ever.

"We probably lost three days" of business, says Fitze. "Especially during the holiday season, people are coming in to buy gifts," she says, some of which were lost to breakage. Gift cards are big sellers and being closed before Christmas cut into that.

"It is a pretty large chunk for us," she admits, though she's not sure what the losses total for the business, which employs 22 people. "Just like any small business ... we have to pay our bills by being open." The 5.4 aftershock on New Year's Day broke a few more things but didn't close the shop.

Farther down Wildwood Avenue, near the bridge, the Patron Kitchen was closed longer, despite only having to patch up a few fallen ceiling tiles. Gerardo Gonzales, who has owned the restaurant with his wife Letitia for the last four and a half years, reopened on Dec. 29, a day after the return of potable water. It was a good day with lots of customers, but they'd already lost eight days of business and an estimated $1,200 per day in sales. The loss of refrigerated inventory in the blackout — meat, vegetables, salsas, dairy and other supplies — he puts at around $2,000. "It's bad you know, that is really bad for me," he says.

Asked if he can make up the loss topping $11,000, Gonzales sighs. "I don't think so," he says, noting insurance won't cover it and he still has to pay rent on the space and bills. He's open for regular hours this week, and grateful the Jan. 1 quake didn't cut power or water, but the future is uncertain long term. "This week I can do it but I don't know after that one because I need to pay the [three] employees this week." Still, he hasn't given up. His home and family in Fortuna were unharmed and he's got a little credit left at one of his suppliers. Beyond that, he'll have to talk to his bank.

Housed inside Root 101, Wildwood Waffles Assistant Manager Sawyer McCanless says, "We had a little bit of damage but we're back up and running." Even after the return of water and power, it took a few days to clean up tipped shelves in the supply shop, so it was drive-through only for a bit. "We lost a whole week of business," she says. While she can't say what the financial toll is, inventory definitely took a hit. "We had all sorts of coffee and food all over the place; we had to throw out a bunch of stuff." The Jan. 1 temblor put a few more cracks in the building but left the kitchen intact, except for a sink that had to be remounted.

Business has at least been brisk since reopening indoor service (if not yet seating). "We've been a little busier since other places aren't open yet and some people don't have water and power."

The little red building where owner Dorothy Johnson has run DJ's Burger Bar for 25 years was still closed as the year came to an end. "The 19th was my last day open and I'm waiting for a repair man to come and fix my hot water heater ... so I can open on Tuesday," when Johnson is also expecting deliveries. Water from the heater flooded the building and she lost a few small things, like cups, plates and bowls. She's hopeful the water heater is fixable, unlike the ones the quake broke in both a property she rents out and her home, where she says she also hauled out 10 50-gallon garbage bags of broken glass.

Johnson's weekend will be spent cleaning up once the water heater is fixed and the power, water and gas can come back on. "I know I've lost food in my refrigerator because once its frozen, you can't freeze it again. I'm going to be tossing a lot of that." She's fortunate it won't be too much meat, since she gets fresh ground beef delivered from Springville Meat in Fortuna, about 50 pounds every other day, and never uses frozen. When the power went out following the quake, she and an employee took the 25 pounds (about 40 burgers worth) from DJ's refrigerator to the fire department and used it to feed workers and volunteers there lunch.

Paying ahead for supplies that can't be sold makes catching up harder, since restaurant owners may not have the cash to pay for the next round of inventory. "You have to pay for everything before you feed 'em, so you're putting out money before you make any," says Johnson. After two weeks closed, "I probably lost a good $10,000 in sales." Like many of her neighbors, she has no earthquake insurance, as it's too expensive for her. It'll be tough but she feels she's able to keep the business going despite the losses. "I'm trying to open back up because I'm concerned about my two workers. ... With me not open, I can't afford to pay 'em," she says. "They're two single ladies and I know they're getting' hit pretty hard right now."

Catching up with Johnson after a weekend of repair work — including cleaning up even more breakage, reattaching a sink and fixing the water heater again after Sunday's quake — DJ's is back selling burgers, and she's in good spirits. Her ice machine and register are out of commission now but she can open without those. Johnson still isn't complaining. "There's other people worse off than I am, I can guarantee you that."

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at (707) 442-1400, extension 320, or jennifer@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Instagram @JFumikoCahill and on Mastodon @jenniferfumikocahill.

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