HOME is where the heart is when it comes to pandemic restaurant resiliency

The Home gang, Brad, Linda, Lola and Inka.
The Home gang: Brad, Linda, Lola and Inka.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

While so many others retrenched over the past year, Brad Briske and Linda Ritten tripled down on their commitment to bringing the best of fresh local food to people’s tables.

Brad Briske and Linda Ritten, partners in work and life and co-owners of HOME in Soquel, are the pandemic small-business bellwethers for taking COVID lemons and making delicious lemonade.

They not only figured out how to successfully sling curbside takeout, seat people in their perfect-for-pandemic garden, create an in-house takeaway market and launch a slew of farmers’ market stalls, they just this winter opened up a satellite location within Discretion Brewing called HOMEfry.

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The common moniker for all of these projects, “Home,” is a fitting umbrella term for the fabric that binds those involved. Truly a family business, Briske and Ritten have quite literally raised their two young daughters Lola (10) and Inka (6) in restaurants.

Back in 2016, at the launch of HOME in Soquel, Linda’s sister Sanra Ritten and her husband Diego Felix, the tandem behind Colectivo Felix and those amazing empanadas, moved from Argentina to help open the restaurant. Briske had worked at Millennium in San Francisco with both Sanra and Diego and Linda would come sit at the bar and wait for her sister to get off work. Brad was working on the line right next to the bar, and the rest is history.

Brad and Linda share a moment with Inka while Lola explores the garden.
Brad and Linda share a moment with Lola while Inka explores the garden.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Even the restaurant space itself is a kind of homecoming for Briske, who turns 40 this year, He had his first chef role there when it was Main Street Garden.

That is where he really refined the nose-to-tail, whole animal butchering that he has become known for, a twisting road in his culinary journey considering he started it as a vegan at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York and then interned at the plant-based mecca that is Millennium.

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But his time cooking in the city, eating at places known for the highest caliber of ingredients and sourcing, shifted Briske’s perspective. “I would ride my bike over to Chez Panisse and eat upstairs in the cafe,” he says. Which is where he explored the menu and started eating fish and butter and real cheese, “not the green can parmesan fake cheese I grew up with,” he says.

And as someone cooking in restaurants, post-Millennium, he had to learn to cook meat, including in downtown Santa Cruz at Gabriella Café. Chris LaVeque of El Salchichero worked there at the same time, and Briske remembers a pivotal time when they all went to harvest a pig at Everett Family Farm.

Being a part of that, knowing how it was raised, how it was treated, the whole story behind how the animal was butchered and prepared, was a fundamental process for him and his approach to food.

Brad Briske, formerly a vegan, has perfected the art of butchery.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Yet while the chef certainly doesn’t call himself a vegan anymore, he doesn’t actually eat a ton of meat. He will taste it and make sure it is being prepared right, and enjoys small amounts when appropriate, but when he goes out to a taqueria he orders beans and rice.

We had the chance to talk to both Brad and Linda recently, asking them to reflect back on this past year. Here are the highlights of the conversation, edited for clarity and conciseness.

As we hit the one-year mark of the pandemic shutdown, what comes to mind for you as people in the restaurant industry?

BB: Getting to open my own restaurant, it still blows my mind a little bit. We are really lucky, by we I mean my wife and I. We are in a really unique position in that we are restaurateurs, but I’m also the chef, so I can work as much as I want and I don’t have to pay a chef’s salary. I just do it for my family and myself because I love to do it. And my wife runs the front of the house of the restaurant and does the payroll and everything else. We have two small children, so they just come to work with us

Dad gets a garden hug from Lola.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

When COVID happened and there were no more gatherings, we just started using the space that we already had, in the front and the back patio and the lawn, we had like 70 seats.

LR: I am hopeful and more optimistic of an end in sight. I am excited for summer, and sunshine, and less COVID, and our garden, and expanding the garden seating. The garden is really looking good ... a lot of work but it soothes my soul to be out there.

What were the main ways you had to pivot your business during the pandemic?

BB: We make a fried chicken dish that people come here just for that. We’re already making Bolognese sauce and fresh pasta. And we just started taking it to the farmers’ markets and selling it there. Now we are doubling our recipes. So we essentially started, and now are going to continue, a whole separate business, our farmers’ market program.

And also take-and-bake dishes. We make our lasagnas to serve here so we just made the same thing and put it in a to-go container to sell. I could come in on a day when we were closed and make a ton of food and then we would sell out at the farmers’ market. We always felt that we would be okay, like if it had gotten really bad for us, we would have survived because it would just be me cooking and Linda running things.

Then we were approached by Rob and Kathleen who own Discretion Brewing up the road. No one wants to open a restaurant in the middle of January in a pandemic. Except for us. What’s the worst that could happen? The idea for Discretion is kind of what we are doing at the farmers’ markets, I’ll just make a little bit more and just send it up the street and see how it goes. And it’s been good.

LR: Starting the farmers’ market was huge, it is really what kept us going and kept our kitchen team employed. I had always wanted to go back to working the farmers’ markets, one of my favorite jobs ever, so I was so happy that it was well received by the community and they are continuing to come out to support us.

What are you most proud of, or satisfied with, in terms of how you adapted to the constant shifting?

BB: Just the positive attitude of Linda. She deals with my insanity.

LR: I am most proud of myself and Brad taking better care of ourselves. We have worked so hard throughout this whole year, but still making sure we did take the time to go camping, take a night off, spend quality time with our kids and just ourselves too. I think we have learned a lot about prioritizing.

What are you most disappointed about?

BB: Not having people here. Just seeing people coming back and how happy they are to be back, the biggest part we miss is how much time they weren’t here. It’s sad. But I did enjoy the time I spent in the garden when we were closed.

LR: I am most disappointed with polarizing and politicizing and the blaming people are doing to each other. I could not believe how some guests treated my employees back in the summertime, to the point where I wrote an open letter and posted it on social media. I think my letter was well received and the most important part that my team knew I had their backs and was never going to let that fly in our “HOME.”

Family time is all the time between Linda's homeschooling of Lola and Inka and the kids coming to work with their parents.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Are there any permanent changes to the restaurant industry from this pandemic?

BB: There’s definitely some places that were not as fortunate as we were that didn’t make it and probably won’t come back. It’s not like saying only the good ones survived. But for us personally, I would say that people now really appreciate eating outdoors, probably more than they did before.

Any COVID silver linings?

BB: It was the first time I had a little time and got to do a ton of gardening. I finished our pig roasting fire pit. It took all of this to happen to make it happen. We now make Cassoulet and figured out how to make this Osso Buco dish ... I don’t think I’ll ever take it off the menu!

LR: While homeschooling my kids and running a business is hard — really, really hard — I am so happy I have gotten to spend more time with them. Having them around ALL the time is super hard but also super fun. And they spend a lot of time in the restaurant with us, so having them have the level of socialization that so many other kids are not getting is something I am extremely grateful for.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

HOME is where the multitude of choices are

• In-garden dining Thursday-Sunday, reservations available 4-8 p.m. @ resy.com

• To-go menu: Thursday-Sunday 4-8 p.m.

• Farmers’ markets: Wednesday, downtown 1-5 p.m.; Saturday, Westside 9 a.m.-1 p.m. & Sunday, Live Oak 9 a.m.-1 p.m.

- HOME away in house market open Thursday-Sunday, 4-8pm