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Big Sur Is Beautiful. It’s Also a Hard Place to Run a Restaurant

How businesses cope with natural disaster along the California coast

Post Ranch Inn/Kodiak Greenwood

After nearly six years of drought, this past winter seemed to prove the 1972 Albert Hammond hit song true: “It never rains in California, but... it pours. Man, it pours.” Among the areas slammed by the wettest season on record was the stretch of mid-coast Highway 1 called Big Sur. In recent years, social media has helped turn this idyllic spot tucked between redwood forest and Pacific cliffsides into an international destination. The area is home to such iconic restaurants as Sierra Mar at the luxe Post Ranch Inn, longtime celebrity haunt Nepenthe, and funky Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn.

Now, with access to these and neighboring businesses cut by mudslides and a collapsed bridge following winter rains, many Big Sur restaurateurs are experiencing the type of closures or slowdowns that are becoming more common as extreme weather, aging infrastructure, and even acts of terrorism hit culinary destinations. How they are dealing with the situation provides a look at restaurants’ survival and resourcefulness in trying times.

Hurricane Katrina’s ravaging of New Orleans, September 11th’s shutdown of downtown Manhattan, Superstorm Sandy’s flooding of the New York and New Jersey waterfronts — each of these events did a number on the businesses caught in their wake. Even the upcoming L train closure in New York City is projected to impact the restaurant industry as Manhattan straphangers’ ride to Williamsburg’s bars and restaurants gets sidelined in 2019. Understandably, Williamsburg proprietors have been worried.

In Big Sur, though, they’re used to obstacles. Along a wooded, seaside highway prone to fires and mudslides, this is not the first time that disaster has struck. A 2001 chronology published by the California Department of Transportation, or CalTrans, lists more than 50 road closures due to “natural” disasters dating back to 1935 on the Big Sur coast.

But 2016 piled it on: Last summer’s nearby Soberanos fire had already dampened tourism during the high season. Following winter’s rains, multiple slides blocked traffic from the south. A culvert collapsed, leading to a shutdown on Pacific Coast Highway 12 miles north of Big Sur. Then, in March, Caltrans demolished Big Sur’s Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge after supporting pillars sunk into the mountainside, causing the structure to crack.

The move split Big Sur in two. Though the highway has reopened to the north, and restaurants and inns on that side of Big Sur are welcoming visitors, businesses like Deetjen’s, Nepenthe, and Post Ranch that are wedged between the fallen bridge and the slides have been stranded. For now, the only way to reach them is during half-hour windows in the morning and evening (with limited Friday deliveries) to the south or via a 1.1-mile hiking trail to the north. CalTrans estimates that the closest slide will be cleared by mid-June, while the Pfeiffer Canyon replacement bridge will not be in place until September.

The entrance to the Big Sur Inn.
Sarah Morris/Flickr

It’s a confluence of setbacks that everyone here calls “a double whammy.” For some, the only solution was to close up shop and throw efforts into repairs, upgrades, and earning cash through events held elsewhere. Trees toppled onto cabins at the Deetjen’s, shuttering the beloved inn and restaurant. A skeleton crew has been living on site, cleaning and fixing. A non-profit, Deetjen’s has had to lay off nearly all of its staff.

Estimating the financial loss to be “in the hundreds and hundreds of thousands,” Deetjen’s manager Jeanne Crowley established a satellite office in her off-grid home on the north side where she’s been refunding room deposits (“that hurt us the most,” she says) and running GoFundMe and corporate match campaigns that appeal to loyal guests who want to see Deetjen’s survive. She’s also been organizing pop-ups in Carmel up the coast: a five-course Mexican fundraising dinner at Cultura restaurant, a taco stand at a crafts fair held by displaced Big Sur vendors. These, she says, are “for the chef, so we don’t lose him in the process.”

Manning the burners at Deetjen’s for over a decade, Domingo Santamaria exemplifies Big Sur’s dedicated workforce. “I have never worked in one place for this long before. It’s magical,” he says. He and his cooks have been making do with gardening and other odd jobs. Some have found work elsewhere. But even after four months away, “a lot of my staff are calling me to find out when we’re going to open,” he adds, “because they want to come back.”

You hear that all over Big Sur. This is not an easy place to earn a living. With short-term rentals pushing prices and occupancy up in recent years, many hold two jobs, or commute from out of the area. You have to love the place to stay working here, and those that do tend to stay forever — “10, 20, or 30 years,” says Crowley — so it’s no surprise that labor is foremost in business owners’ minds.

“Our largest need is keeping the bonds with our dislocated staff as strong as possible,” says Kirk Gafill, owner of Nepenthe, established by his grandparents in 1949. At first, Gafill, too, closed his restaurant and took the opportunity to spruce up the place, an effort that employed some of his staff. Gafill kept all of his workers on health care (switching them to COBRA in April when the insurance company required it) and has helped some find temporary gigs at friends’ restaurants elsewhere in Monterey County.

In April, Nepenthe opened again, and 20 or so workers now have jobs serving a pared-down menu of classics — the chile-mayo-topped “ambrosia burger,” steak frites, beet salad — to the 400 or so of Big Sur’s 1,500 full-time residents who are stuck on the south side, along with assorted guests who’ve made it in. But with covers varying from 50 one night to 10 another, down from more than 400 during a regular high season when the bulk of the area’s yearly 900,000 visitors come through, “there are no simple questions or answers down here,” Gafill says.

“What is a skeleton crew?” he continues. “We don’t want them to stand around doing nothing. What is an appropriate scale for our menu? We can’t do highly perishable items or things we need bulk for. We don’t want to bring in food at great cost and effort and have to throw it away.”

As a Big Sur institution with a history of regulars that includes Henry Miller and Clint Eastwood, Nepenthe’s quick reopening provides locals a way to gather and “get out of the artificial routines of survival mode we’ve gotten into,” says Gafill. But, he adds, “everything is a logistical challenge. Every day we are having to MacGyver new solutions.”

In fact, one of the reasons Gafill could reopen with the expectation of customers is that neighboring Post Ranch Inn came up with the ultimate MacGyver move: bringing in guests via helicopter through a new, all-inclusive Escape Through the Skies package. For well-heeled visitors, the promotion offers the opportunity to experience Big Sur un-impinged by the hordes that have characterized the busy season in recent years.

The patio at Nepenthe.
Sandip Bhattacharya/Flickr
The view of Big Sur from Nepenthe.
Harvey Barrison/Flickr

But perhaps the most resourceful of Big Sur proprietors works on the other end of the scale, at the modest Big Sur Deli and Taproom. A community haunt for quick bites and groceries, the place stayed open even when others shuttered back in winter. “We have been losing money, but I just don’t believe in closing,” says owner Kurt Mayer, who’s been waiting for funds from approved disaster loans to come through. “Who’s gonna go to a high-end restaurant in a disaster? But you’re gonna need milk and eggs and bread and beer, which is a large reason I’m open.”

Big Sur Deli’s parking lot buckled, the building suffered cracks, water lines broke, and Mayer’s business is a third of what it should be, but he persists, humping supplies along the hiking trail — “ice cream is kind of heavy,” he says — while his son Steven sleeps over at the property, keeping the lights on.

“These are good lessons for your kids,” says Mayer. “You figure it out and you stay open. Maybe it’s a little harder, but that’s what you do. Big Sur does this to everybody. Either you burn out, or you push back. It demands that kind of respect, Big Sur does.”

And it garners adoration. Restaurateurs throughout Monterey County have held events to support the Big Sur Relief Fund, which has handed out checks to affected locals, in part because Big Sur is an enormous draw for the 4.5 million travelers who hit Monterey County each year. It raises the profile of the entire coastline.

“We’re lucky because, being in Big Sur, we are the darlings of Monterey County,” says Michelle Rizzolo of the Big Sur Bakery, which is currently shuttered in its location 1,000 feet south of the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge. “People are emotionally attached to our place, so there’s been an amazing outpouring of hospitality from other restaurants.”

For Rizzolo, there’s another silver lining to the forced closure: the breathing room to rethink the menu. “Creatively, this will give us time. People have projects they’ve wanted to work on: pickling, fine-tuning our 100-percent rye bread, working on teacake recipes. I have a whole list. When you’re making 4,000 croissants a day and it takes four hours, it’s hard to get to that other stuff,” she says.

Eventually, though portions of Highway 1 may remain closed indefinitely, access to southern Big Sur will ease, and places like the bakery and Deetjen’s will welcome the intrepid. “We will open barebones with a modified menu as soon as we can put people back in for the night,” Deetjen’s Jeanne Crowley says. And if they do come, they’ll find a paradise.

“It’s been so crowded for so long, it’s actually amazing to not see a car when you’re driving and not wait for an hour for a table. It will really be a spectacular weekend, where you go to Nepenthe for the sunset view and then have a great breakfast here,” Crowley says. “People have really been jonesing for our eggs Benedict.”

Betsy Andrews’ work can be found at betsyandrews.contently.com and in Best Food Writing 2016. She is also the author of two award-winning books of poetry: New Jersey and The Bottom.
Editor: Erin DeJesus

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