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How this Napa entrepreneur is piloting 2 restaurants through the pandemic

Sometimes living in the present isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, especially if you’re a restaurant owner trying to keep your business alive in a pandemic.

Just ask Chuck Meyer, a Bay Area native and owner of two businesses in downtown Napa.

“I spend more time thinking about the future than I do with what's happening right now. We know what we're supposed to do today. What are we going to do tomorrow?” said Meyer, who is married to his wife, Carly, and has two young sons. “It sort of drives a lot of people around me crazy.”

Six years ago, Meyer, 49, opened Napa Palisades Saloon, a gastropub that features more than 30 house and local craft beers on tap, as well as a full bar with cocktails and wines.

On March 16, 2020, Meyer was set to debut First and Franklin Marketplace, a deli and gift shop. As it turned out, the timing couldn't have been worse. The state went on lockdown that day because of the coronavirus pandemic. First and Franklin opened on June 15, shortly after Napa County allowed restaurants to resume dining service.

Working to stay afloat

Because of the multiple shutdowns over the past year, business has been challenging, to say the least. Meyer said he exited 2020 with a $1.5 million revenue loss at Napa Palisades Saloon. First and Franklin Marketplace hadn’t been open long enough to fully assess revenue, he said.

The deli portion of First and Franklin has been surviving with takeout, but the gift shop has struggled because it’s geared toward tourists, of which there aren’t many these days.

“The tourists that we do have are coming from local cities,” Meyer said. “A lot of those people don't really get a T-shirt that says ‘Napa Valley’ on it.”

To help pay rent, Meyer said he has subleased a portion of the marketplace to a local coffee roaster and a doughnut business.

Meanwhile, Napa Palisades is ramping back up as COVID-19 restrictions ease.

“We certainly haven't made up all that lost revenue, but we've been able to stay alive,” Meyer said. “We made a lot of deals with our landlord and, personally, our mortgage. So we've been able to kind of pause a lot of things to get ready to get back to business and then start paying all the bills again.”

Meyer was able to secure two Paycheck Protection Program loans, totaling $500,000. Most of it went to payroll.

“We were really able to keep the core team together and keep them going, even when we weren’t that busy,” Meyer said. He’s currently got roughly 24 employees, about five fewer than at the beginning of last year.

“As evidenced through the pandemic, he’s very much an employee-first operator,” said David Blumenfeld, a longtime friend and co-founder of NextRivet LLC, a consulting firm that helps bring digital technologies to retailers and restaurants. “And really, to his financial detriment, he kept (all of) his employees on for as long as he could.”

Meyer contracted with San Francisco-based NextRivet last year to build the online-ordering platform for both of his establishments, as well as build First and Franklin’s website, Blumenfeld said. NextRivet has also taken over marketing, including social media, for both enterprises.

Finding his way

Meyer found his professional calling in Los Angeles while studying at UCLA, where he graduated in 1994 with a degree in political science and business.

“I always thought (and of course my parents told me) that I should eventually ‘get a real job.’ I tried so many times to do that, but they just never stuck,” Meyer said. “Eventually, I decided that I was going to take a shot at committing to the restaurant business as a career, so I took my first manager job. I was given the general manager job in less than three months and never looked back.”

Meyer continued to work his way up in the restaurant industry and in 2015 became an entrepreneur when he launched Napa Palisades Saloon, with an investment of about $250,000.

“I pulled every favor I could to make that a number that was achievable,” Meyer said, including money he had from some investments and credit cards. “I mean, it was just a bootstrap thing all around.”

There also was a bit of luck in the mix.

One day in 2015, while visiting a chef friend in San Francisco, Meyer noticed a sign at the nearby Marriott that auditions were being held for the TV game show, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”

“And so on a whim, I went down there,” he said. “I ended up getting a spot on the show and made it to the second round. I won about $50,000.”

Helping to create fun

“I think when you first meet Chuck, he comes off as having a very easy, relaxed style, and that's really who he is as a person,” Blumenfeld said. “But he's also very business-driven and very entrepreneurial in his thinking.”

To that end, in addition to running Napa Palisades and First and Franklin, Meyer serves as culinary director for BottleRock, an annual multiday music, wine, food and brew festival in the Napa Valley.

“I was a vendor the very first year, (in) 2013,” Meyer said, noting it was hard work but a lot of fun. When the festival was sold to new ownership in 2014, a friend of Meyer’s needed help with the wine and food programs, so he recruited restaurants.

Today, Meyer handles food and beverage for the annual event and manages 70 vendors, he said.

“I've always been more interested in throwing the party more than going to it,” Meyer said. “There is something very satisfying about looking out over 40,000 people bobbing their heads in unison, having the time of their lives and knowing that you helped create that.”

BottleRock was cancelled last year amid the pandemic but so far has the green light this year, with dates set for early September.

Casual style

Adam Wheeler, a Los Angeles-based architect, met Meyer more than 30 years ago, when the two were pledge brothers for the Sigma Chi fraternity at UCLA.

They were opposites, said Wheeler, the son of two journalists who lived in London and Paris before settling in the Hollywood Hills. Meyer was born in San Rafael and grew up in smaller towns, living in Lake Tahoe for most of his childhood before moving to Santa Rosa during high school.

Their opposite upbringings never entered into the friendship equation, Wheeler said.

“With Chuck, everything was just very casual,” he said. “And I remember he also was very generous. He didn't have a lot of money growing up, but he was always there to help. Those are the traits that you look for in really good friends.”

Wheeler also isn’t surprised by Meyer’s business skills.

“People really gravitated towards Chuck because he always could handle a situation with no chaos. He was always very level-headed,” Wheeler said. “There’s something about him that's extremely approachable. He’s not stuffy and he's not arrogant, and I think that comes through in his restaurants.”

Close to home

Meyer also is involved in community work, and is part of Feed Napa Now, a nonprofit coalition of Napa chefs, restauranteurs, caterers, farmers and community members dedicated to providing food for families in need.

Meyer also is contributing to the Essential Napa Valley Cookbook, a project aimed at raising money for Napa restaurant workers impacted by the pandemic — 75% of the proceeds will go to restaurant workers in need and 25% to Feed Napa Now.

“I like to solve problems for myself, and I like to solve problems for other people,” Meyer said. “And that's where I feel the most alive. I think that's what keeps me going in all this stuff, because I'm thinking about what's next.”

Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education. She previously worked for a Gannett daily newspaper in New Jersey and NJBIZ, the state’s business journal. Cheryl has freelanced for business journals in Sacramento, Silicon Valley, San Francisco and Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, Northridge. Reach her at cheryl.sarfaty@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4259.

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