During the night of Oct. 8, the start of the wildfires in Sonoma County, Sonu Chandi was concerned about his family and his home, and worries were compounded by one of his company’s restaurants that was on fire.
At 3 a.m. he was on the phone with the fire alarm company who said the alarm was going off at Mountain Mike’s Pizza on Cleveland Avenue in Santa Rosa.
Chandi saw the nearby Fountaingrove neighborhood on fire. When he and his father got to the restaurant, “The building was in complete flames,” he said.
Chandi and his family, who live in Santa Rosa, waited like many others to see if they had to evacuate. Family in the East Bay did come and collect Chandi’s 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter.
“It was the not knowing that was the worst,” he said.
The wildfires incinerated more than 5,000 homes in Sonoma County, killed 24 people and in all and damaged or destroyed 29 businesses around Santa Rosa.
Mountain Mike’s was one of a handful of businesses near Cleveland and Hopper avenues that burned to the ground, including Kmart.
Chandi is CEO of Chandi Restaurant Group. Other operators include his wife, Ren, and brothers Joti and Sunny.
The family owns 11 eateries around Sonoma County, including Stout Brothers Pub, Beer Baron and Bibi’s Burger Bar within blocks of one another in downtown Santa Rosa, and several Mountain Mike’s Pizza outlets around Sonoma County.
A few of the company’s restaurants were impacted, while others were not, Sonu Chandi said. Though not suffering physical damage, downtown restaurants were “severely impacted” by lack of business as was the newest Mountain Mike’s on Montgomery Drive.
“There was nobody downtown,” Chandi said.
The Chandis closed nine of their restaurants for a few days after the start of the fires. A few restaurants were open by Oct. 10, and all were open by Oct. 12.
“I talked to others in the industry, and they said, ‘Are you opening?’ I said, ‘We have to, to work on bringing normalcy back,’” Chandi said.
Like other businesses, the restaurants were also affected by key employees who were evacuated. And others who had no family here immediately moved out of the area.
Some employees were ready to come back to work right away, while others had fire-related issues to deal with and were not ready to come back.
Employees from the Mountain Mike’s location on Cleveland Avenue were moved to other locations.
On a positive note, Chandi restaurants further south of the fires, in Rohnert Park, Petaluma and Novato, were positively impacted by the fires as more people fled in that direction.
Overall business, however, was down about 30 percent in October. But business in November was “a little bit better,” and by December numbers were closer to normal.
Talking to others in the industry, some small businesses, depending on location, suffered big losses in the fires.
“I really feel for small businesses; it’s been tough for them. Restaurant owners, depending on where they were, were really impacted. That’s what I’m hearing,” Chandi said.
October is normally one of the busiest months of the year for restaurants. Owners put away revenue during that time for the slower months of the year. Instead of taking in a profit this year, they were for the most part giving food away to fire victims.
“I’m worried about the first quarter (of 2018),” Duskie Estes, owner of Zazu Kitchen and Farm in Sebastopol said at a town meeting in Sebastopol after the fires. “I don’t have what I need to have.”
Those that rely more on tourism were also hit hard, like wineries, as media reports depicted Wine Country as obliterated.
“People were thinking that Wine Country was gone,” Chandi said.
A lesson from the fires is to know your insurance broker.
“We’ve known our insurance broker a very long time and he helped us. I’ve heard horror stories in dealing with insurance companies. It’s a big lesson. Do know your insurance thoroughly,” Chandi said.
It also pays to have more than one location.
Despite the fires, the Chandi Restaurant Group is doing well enough to continue expansion.
“The key is we’re fortunate to be diversified as a hospitality group. It worked for us,” he said.
The family-owned company hopes to reopen the Cleveland Avenue restaurant in 12 to 15 months, but a few doors down.
The Chandis have taken over another space nearby, where they will rebuild the restaurant to include a full bar, brewery and patio seating.
The company is also expanding with three new Mountain Mike’s restaurants, due to open in in the next five to six months in American Canyon, Ukiah and Fort Bragg.
The Chandis are also getting into the hotel business. They are working with a few major brands such as Marriott and Holiday Inn for the possibility of a 90-room hotel on the site of the former Mountain Mike’s on Cleveland Avenue.
“It fits us really well,” Chandi said.
He is set to be part of a "Stories of Resilience" employer panel at the Sonoma State University Economic Outlook conference in Rohnert Park on March 2.
Cynthia Sweeney covers health care, hospitality, residential real estate, education, employment and business insurance. Reach her at Cynthia.Sweeney@busjrnl.com or call 707-521-4259.