Quick Take:

The Esplanade in the Capitola Village remained closed to pedestrians and traffic on Friday after a storm surge on Thursday damaged many businesses. Others could reopen relatively soon, but power has yet to be restored to the area.

Restaurants in Capitola Village are reeling from the aftermath of this week’s storm and preparing for more intense weather on the way.

Power remained shut off to the village Friday and many businesses were closed, throwing business owners and employees into a state of uncertainty about when they will reopen and be able to return to work.

Even owners of food businesses in the area that managed to escape relatively unscathed face challenges due the continued power outage, loss of income and concerns about the future. Some are raising questions about what the city should be doing to help business owners mitigate the damage and help protect them from such destruction in the future.

The Esplanade, usually filled with throngs of visitors eager to grab a drink and a meal by the water’s edge, was closed to pedestrians and car traffic on Friday afternoon while bulldozers and street sweepers cleaned debris and buildings were inspected for structural damage.

Sandbags are still piled at doorsteps, ready for expected upcoming storms through the weekend and into next week. Green, yellow and red tags from the city of Capitola are posted on every door, noting which buildings are ready to reopen, those that have a higher level of damage with some access to property owners but need to be cleared to reopen, and those that have been badly damaged and have completely restricted access.

Josh Fisher’s hot dog stand, Left Coast Sausage Worx, is tucked in a corner off San Jose Avenue, separated from the Esplanade by a small parking lot. On Thursday morning, he was cleaning up minor damage when high tide brought a damaging tidal surge to his doorstep. “It came to our outside door,” Fisher said. “We had sandbags, but it was up about 4 or 5 inches on the door. The sandbags held for me. We got some water inside, but nothing crazy.”

The deck at Zelda's On The Beach in Capitola was destroyed during the Jan. 5 storm surge.
The deck at Zelda’s On The Beach in Capitola was destroyed during the Jan. 5 storm surge. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Fisher also manages nearby Capitola Mercantile, an indoor bazaar off of a pedestrian-only plaza, where he owns another business, the Daily Grind Coffee & Bottle Shop. The surge rolled over a 10-inch curb and hit the front door of the Mercantile, Fisher said, although the water didn’t reach the inside of the building. Half a block away, the same surge knocked over fences at ocean-facing rental cottages and dragged a piece of the Capitola pier into the inside of ocean-facing Zelda’s Bar & Grill, which was later red-tagged by the city.

“We did OK,” Fisher said. “We were very fortunate.”

While he says he and other nearby business owners are in a state of shock, Fisher worries about what effect a loss of tourism for the ocean-facing restaurants that were badly damaged could have on others that can reopen more quickly. “If they’re not open for, say, three months, six months or a year — which we don’t know, that’s speculation — it could affect everybody in the whole village,” Fisher said. “So we’re just hoping to open and support in any way we can.”

Business owners and the city planning department were still assessing damage and there is no timeline for red-tagged businesses to reopen. Many yellow-tagged businesses could reopen as soon as power is restored.

LaSalle and Michelle Strong, the owners of the Capitola Bar & Grill, say their ocean-facing restaurant’s location on a second story above Margaritaville saved them from sustaining any damage. They could reopen as soon as power is restored and the sewer line they share with other nearby businesses is repaired. While the sewer was expected to be repaired by the end of the day on Friday, the city has not said when power will be restored. Meanwhile, the couple is attempting to save expensive cuts of meat and other food from spoiling by moving it to a freezer at their other business, an unopened pizza parlor on Ocean Street in Santa Cruz.

“My concern is how the PG&E line and gas line are going to go,” Michelle Strong said. “Right now they’re isolating areas that are damaged severely so that the people that are yellow-tagged and residents can just have power back on. I’m assuming that’s what’s taking longer.”

A yellow tag notes on a business on the Capitola Esplanade
A yellow tag notes that a business on the Capitola Esplanade suffered a limited amount of damage and some access is allowed. Some yellow-tagged restaurants could reopen when power is restored. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

While the Strongs are prepared to weather their own financial losses, they worry about the effect on their employees. “Our staff is losing income and it’s not enough for them to go find another job because it’s just a day or two. But here in Santa Cruz, that’s a big difference in these households,” Michelle said. They are encouraging anyone who would like to support the staff to buy gift cards, which she can distribute to staff members as requested or keep to support Capitola Bar & Grill through the closure.

As they look to the future, the Strongs believe the city could learn from this experience and create systems to prepare business owners and residents in the event of future storms. On Thursday night, LaSalle noted that their neighbors, Margaritaville owner Sarah Orr and her husband, were putting up boards in the windows of their restaurant. “I think that’s something that the city should be contracting out and providing the lumber,” LaSalle said. “They should have a stock yard where they have that lumber for the next disaster so we’re not doing it ourselves.”

At the English Ales Brewery taproom on Capitola Avenue, one block from the badly damaged Esplanade, manager Nicole Alexander wasn’t letting the power outage dampen her spirits. The doors to the cozy English-style pub were open and space heaters, along with a roaring fireplace, warmed the interior. “Our beer stays cold for a long time and you don’t need power to operate the gas to push the beer through the line,” she said. However, the pub was unable to offer food without power. Alexander planned to bring candles in to light the tables for the evening.

“As far as actual structural damage, we were totally untouched. The debris and water flowed through the back alley and literally stopped at our parking space,” said Alexander. “We’ve been absolutely blessed to be able to still operate, but we’re not operating at full capacity, which kind of takes away from the feel of our brand.”

Alexander worries about how damage to the beachfront properties will have on the rest of the businesses in the village, but is trying to be positive and focus on the needs of her community members: “You have to take it a day at a time and we will rebuild. It’s not impossible.”

Lily Belli is the food and drink correspondent at Lookout Santa Cruz. Over the past 15 years since she made Santa Cruz her home, Lily has fallen deeply in love with its rich food culture, vibrant agriculture...