Owners of Willi's Wine Bar in Santa Rosa reveal road to rebuilding restaurant lost to wildfire
Terri and Mark Stark, owners of Stark Reality Restaurants in Santa Rosa, learned in the wee hours of Monday morning, Oct. 9, 2017, that their first-ever restaurant, Willi's Wine Bar, had burned in the fires.
The couple initially chose not to rebuild, deciding their five existing restaurants would be enough. But in the year since, their grief turned to resolve.
Willi's Wine Bar will be back in the spring - in a different but nearby location - reuniting the more than 40 employees who, following the fires, relocated among the Starks' remaining restaurants: Willi's Seafood & Raw Bar and Bravas Bar de Tapas, both in Healdsburg; Monti's, Stark's Steak & Seafood, and the Bird & The Bottle - all in Santa Rosa.
The Business Journal sat down with Terri Stark days before the one-year anniversary of the fires.
In general, how are you and Mark feeling, a year out from the fires?
TERRI STARK: I feel good. Mark is doing well, too. We have a really optimistic view of moving forward and redeveloping this community instead of feeling depressed about what we've lost. It's taken a while to get there.
Do you plan to acknowledge the one-year mark on Monday?
STARK: Actually, we're having a get-together at our house for all the Willi's employees that are able to make it. One of the motivating factors for us to reopen Willi's was that the staff, while they are grateful they have jobs in our other restaurants, they all want to work together again. …
It was their second home, so we're going to get everyone together. We're going to have big butcher paper and have everyone write what dishes they want to see come back, and just kind of have a collective effort to get this going.
Where were you when the fires broke out?
STARK: I was home asleep. Our director of operations called the house. She's also my best friend. She lived in Coffey Park. Anyway, she woke us up and was hysterical on her way to our house. And I went to make up the guest room, thinking she would get here and we'd go back to sleep and it was not a big deal. And when I opened the door and saw her, it was clear that it was a bigger deal. We knew that Willi's was gone shortly thereafter.
Willi's was our first restaurant. It had just turned 15 that year, in August. … When Willi's burned down, we had 52 employees just for that restaurant. … Forty-three of them are still with us, dispersed among the other five restaurants. Some people left the area.
How long after the fires did you decide to rebuild Willi's Wine Bar?
STARK: It was a while after because we didn't really even secure the new space until June. At first, we kind of went through the stages of grief and loss, and when we opened (Bird & the Bottle in 2015), we definitely were saying six restaurants is enough. …
But then it just didn't feel right to let that be the end of such a great beginning to what we have now. … I think in some ways the fire kind of pissed us off. We've got more fight in us than that, so let's do more.
When will Willi's Wine Bar reopen?
STARK: We just finished our plans, so we're hoping to submit for a permit by Nov. 1, and then do the build and open in early spring. We'll be bringing most of the employees back.
Where is the new location for Willi's Wine Bar?
STARK: It's in the Town and Country Shopping Center (in Santa Rosa). … It's tucked back in the middle of our neighborhood. We can walk to the new Willi's and so can thousands of residents because of its position.
It's been reported that Starks also will open a deli next year in Santa Rosa, in an existing restaurant space in Hotel La Rose that's long been vacant. What's the plan?
STARK: We've always had that concept in our back pocket, so to speak. … The idea was presented to us, probably six to eight months ago. … It will be a really good, kind of New York-style deli. The kitchen is big enough to accommodate this kind of a concept: to make our own pastrami and corned beef … and we're going to have a baker and make our own bagels, rye (bread), challah and everything like that.
Earlier, you mentioned Starks employs more than 400 people across all of its restaurants. How many more jobs do you anticipate adding for the new deli?
STARK: The deli will probably add another 60 people, so if we get our company up to a solid 500 employees, that's pretty good.
What have you learned from having gone through such a traumatic experience?
STARK: Honestly, I feel like I'm enjoying life a little bit more. Not everything is guaranteed. The (fires) were really scary. … We didn't lose our home and I think that's such a different experience that I can't even relate to.
With the business, if it weren't for the fact that Willi's was our first one (it wouldn't have been as hard). Willi's was truly our baby - it was the one we opened on less than a shoestring and it was kind of the foundation to allow us to do all these other places. That made it definitely a lot harder but again, it wasn't our home. It was our second home.
Any closing thoughts about the coming year, especially about the return of Willi's Wine Bar?
STARK: I feel like our slogan's going to be, “We're back.”
Someone asked if it's going to be a Willi's 2.0. I said, "No. Sure, it's going to be different, but the key things that made it Willi's first and foremost were the employees and they will be there."