Creating Farmhouse Inn 'experiential vacation'Catherine Bartolomei-Smith


Farmhouse Inn, Restaurant & Spa

7871 River Road

Forestville 95436



FORESTVILLE -- The fall of 2008 left a painful impression on most as the financial crisis came to a head. For Catherine Bartolomei-Smith, co-owner of the internationally recognized Farmhouse Inn, Restaurant & Spa, it represents the most stressful months of her life. But when asked how she was able to complete a major renovation and expansion in this economy, she said the timing was perfect.

In 2001, Ms. Bartolomei-Smith and her brother Joe bought the Farmhouse, fulfilling their dream of sharing a business centered on hospitality and a connection to the region their family has called home for five generations. The eight-room B&B and restaurant didn't interest her at first, but the chef on staff clinched it.

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"That's the most difficult part. If you can find that talent, everything else can be built around it," she said.

They put together a business plan and obtained an SBA loan with Sonoma Bank. Being small in the beginning, they tried to do everything themselves, from overseeing the restaurant to paying bills to answering the phone. Quickly they realized the importance of hiring key people in each department to concentrate on day-to-day operations so they could focus on implementing their vision.

The first seven years in business they made improvements as they could, completing a surface renovation and adding two rooms in the main house.

"Both of us are debt averse. We try to keep expenses as manageable as possible," said Ms. Bartolomei-Smith.

They were scheduled to break ground in August 2008 on eight additional rooms and renovation of the entire property. After extensive preparation and septic work, the county decided they needed a general plan amendment rather than the septic plan in place, and the entire project was put on hold.

"The loan was set to fund, the contractor was ready, then the county pulled the plug and we had to regroup," said Ms. Bartolomei-Smith. "We had so much tied up in up-front costs that if the loan didn't go through, it would put us under."

With the loan set to expire on Oct. 31, which would then require review by a new loan committee no longer inclined to fund hospitality projects, the building permits were finally issued in the eleventh hour.

"That day we were going to go forward and make it happen, or we were going to figure out what the exit strategy was," she said.

From there, the recession actually worked to their advantage, with the contractor able to devote complete attention to their project, which was finished on budget and on time. The renovation and additional rooms wrapped up in May of last year, and a new spa was completed in February. But they weren't out of the woods yet.

"We had operated as a high-end B&B with huge occupancy numbers and a focus on serving the business that came," said Ms. Bartolomei-Smith. "Then we launched the new rooms in a recession and realized it's a whole new world and a new game. We got on it quickly and reworked our strategies from running in the past."

They had to be more aggressive and creative, looking at policies such as three-night minimums differently from a revenue standpoint. It needed to go from being a little B&B to a boutique luxury hotel overnight. To avoid simply discounting, they enlisted help from the entire staff to research new ways of marketing effectively. They launched new initiatives, partnered with travel agencies and got involved in social media.

"Discounted luxury is everywhere, and there's a huge pot of competitors," said Ms. Bartolomei-Smith. "People don't want a luxury vacation right now, they want an experiential vacation."

This is the vision that drives the Farmhouse to provide something unique to its guests. A visit to the Farmhouse is meant to be an authentic experience of how people in Wine Country really live, with farm-fresh food and locally sourced products. The highly acclaimed restaurant was the main focus of the property from the start.

"Joe and I think anything is possible. Even though they weren't rating restaurants in the U.S. at the time, when I started I wanted to model this after a Michelin star restaurant so when they came we would be rated," said Ms. Bartolomei-Smith.

Indeed, the attention paid to quality was recognized the first year the Michelin Guide came to the U.S. in 2007, and they have received a star every year since.

With so many ideas inspiring her every day, Ms. Bartolomei-Smith strives to always be clear about core values, what Farmhouse is and what makes it unique.

"Everything we put into the Farmhouse returns as long as we stay true to our vision and put in the work," she said. "For the time being, we will keep focusing on the potential at the Farmhouse. ... Every day there is something new. I love that. It's great to be someplace that feeds on change and evolution. The worst thing is to decide it's fine and not do anything."