Now on the menu: Help­ing each other

San Francisco Chronicle - - WINE COUNTRY FIRES - By Justin Phillips Justin Phillips is a San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle staff writer. Email: jphillips@sfchron­i­ Twit­ter: @JustMrPhillips

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 ad­mit­ted. 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.”

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