Now on the menu: Helping each other
Roughly 72 hours after her Santa Rosa restaurant, Willi’s Wine Bar, was reduced to smoldering rubble in the first night of Wine Country fires, Terri Stark was back in a kitchen coordinating meals for emergency responders and displaced residents.
“There’s nothing else to do right now besides take it one day at a time,” she said while working at Santa Rosa’s Bird & the Bottle, one of five remaining restaurants she and husband Mark own in Sonoma County. “We have people who have lost everything, and we’re trying to do what we can for them.”
The company — Stark Reality Restaurants — employs over 400 people, with roughly 85 percent living in areas affected by the Wine Country disaster. To help both her business family and residents across the region, Stark said she has been trying to serve free meals at the properties, which also include Monti’s Rotisserie and Stark’s Steak in Santa Rosa, and Bravas Bar De Tapas and Willi’s Seafood in Healdsburg.
Staying open, however, is a tougher proposition as fires continue to threaten additional communities. For example, Willi’s Seafood opened Wednesday at 11:30 a.m. — but had to close 15 minutes later due to preevacuation orders.
On Thursday, the scene at Bird & the Bottle embodied the uncertainty rampant in Sonoma County: Stark said her staff was slim because most were dealing with substantial losses, and only a few diners had found their way to the restaurant that morning amid the county’s chaos. Some were part of a group of employees “who just needed hugs,” and another was a man who ventured in by himself.
“I didn’t know his story, but he looked as though he lost everything,” Stark said, her voice breaking. “This is just devastating.”
Sleep hadn’t come easy since Monday, Stark acknowledged. She saw flames licking at the air from her home, which she bought from her grandparents 17 years ago in the Grace Tract neighborhood of Santa Rosa. Her husband spent a few hours watering the roof, she said, preparing for the worst.
“People are on survival mode right now. And they’ve either lost everything, or they evacuated and have nothing to come back to,” she said.
For now, she plans to continue opening her restaurants to the public, and like Bird & the Bottle on Thursday, will use them to occasionally offer free meals to residents and first responders.
“I have six restaurants, except for Willi’s now, I guess, in a small community. And a staff of over 400, which in a town this small is significant,” Stark says. “I don’t know what to expect each day, but we’re going to try to help. Each day. That’s all you can do.”
Mark and Terri Stark own several Sonoma County restaurants.