Closed restaurants stacking up in Healdsburg as ‘buyer’s market’ attracts investors

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The local restaurant industry continues to shoulder the immense brunt of the economic decline and depressed tourism in Sonoma County tied to shutdowns during the coronavirus pandemic, with losses stacking up by the month in previously bankable visitor hot spots.

In food- and hospitality-focused Healdsburg, a recent succession of closures has exposed the distress felt by restaurants across the region. As statewide stay-home orders shift to indefinite timelines, eliminating anything beyond delivery and takeout, the owners of several longtime establishments in the city have joined a growing list of restaurateurs calling it quits.

In Healdsburg and beyond, though, the trend has created a buffet of shuttered restaurant properties for investors looking to cash in on new dining concepts even amid what economists have called a “tricky” environment for entrepreneurs. But the optimistic investments won’t bring back some of the county’s entrenched downtown destinations, whose prominent closures have become a sign of the perilous times.

The string of recent Healdsburg closures includes both the New Orleans-style darling The Parish Café and dependable diner the Singletree Cafe. Now barred from outdoor dining, which was lucrative during better weather, the pair of Healdsburg Avenue mainstays a block from the downtown plaza could no longer justify the operational costs of limited meal options and are both for sale.

“If COVID hadn’t happened and Sonoma (County) wasn’t burning down, we wouldn’t be moving. We had the American dream,” said Rob Lippincott, who owns the Parish Cafe with his wife, Karla Lippincott.

After eight years at the original Healdsburg location, the Lippincotts said they’re tapping out amid ongoing health order-related restrictions that have decimated their bottom line, as well as their family’s emotional health. While still waiting to unload the flagship location after a second storefront in downtown Santa Rosa already sold, the couple plans to reestablish itself with another eatery in Nashville, Tennessee.

“I’m making more money than I imagined I would in my life, but can’t save anything,” Rob Lippincott continued. “That’s not the way it’s supposed to be, not to mention doing business (in California) there are flaming hoops you have to go through and it’s only gotten worse.”

Nanci Van Praag, co-owner of Singletree Cafe, tells a similar story after 20 years in business. She and co-owner Dolores Rodriguez already had plans to retire from the restaurant before anyone had ever heard of the coronavirus, but once it struck, the situation worsened.

The business, which serves traditional diner fare, suffered significant financial hits during recent large-scale wildfires, plus the long-delayed construction of a nearby city roundabout. The cafe barely got through those challenges, Van Praag said, but benefited from an understanding landlord and a community fundraiser to help keep the lights on.

But now the pandemic and recent shutdowns, which prevent the outdoor dining that she said had been successful, have again ravaged sales. They’re currently under contract with a buyer for the location, branding and equipment at a small fraction of the cafe’s listing price with a closing date of Feb. 22. With two longtime employees in tow — a server and chef Minerva Vargas — they aim to spin off, opening a food truck within the next three months, Van Praag said.

“I feel sorry for every person who owns a restaurant right now. There are a couple people managing to make ends meet, and God bless them, I’m glad they can. But the majority of us can’t,” Van Praag said. “Every dime we’ve made has gone back into the restaurant just to keep it running. Those are the breaks of the game, what are you going to do? It’s a gamble. Every business is a gamble, and this gamble didn’t pay off.”

Compared to roughly this same time last year, nearly half of California’s leisure and hospitality businesses — a sector dominated by restaurants — are permanently or temporarily closed, according to data from Opportunity Insights at Harvard University, which is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The study does not break down individual counties, nor detail whether those closures are permanent or temporary.

Other food service businesses in Healdsburg that have closed during the pandemic include The Brass Rabbit, and partner restaurant Chalkboard inside Hotel Les Mars, which is on hiatus until seated dining returns after the winter. With fewer large events and weddings, Moustache Baked Goods on the downtown plaza, co-owned by Vice Mayor Ozzy Jimenez with his partner Christian Sullberg, is for now consolidated into one of the couple’s Noble Folk Ice Cream & Pie Bar locations, also located on the plaza.