Alderwood, Santa Cruz’s only restaurant with a Michelin nod, is adding new branches to its family tree. Under its parent company, Santa Cruz Sky, several new culinary projects are slated to open within the next few months, including casual sibling Alderwood Pacific.
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When Alderwood Santa Cruz opened in downtown Santa Cruz at the end of 2018, it created a stir throughout the community. Many watched the high-profile transformation of what was once an Erik’s Deli into a chic fine dining restaurant with anticipation, others with skepticism.
The menu’s focus, as presented by executive chef Jeffrey Wall, on choice cuts of aged beef prepared on the kitchen’s open alderwood-fired grill, seasonal and sustainable ingredients and an exquisite selection of raw seafood was discussed with interest. Some made their reservations at the contemporary, open-concept restaurant and walked away convinced that Alderwood’s arrival meant that the Santa Cruz dining scene was finally ready to take a seat at the table, so to speak, with the rest of the Bay Area. Others doubted that a restaurant that served a steak for more than $200 would survive for long.
Alderwood has not only survived — it’s expanding. Over the past two years, it has already added several branches to its family tree and in the coming months is set to add several more, most of which are concentrated in the downtown Santa Cruz area — and all of which are encompassed under a company called Santa Cruz Sky.
Santa Cruz Sky’s lofty goals
Santa Cruz Sky is on a path to become the area’s largest locally owned restaurant group, and its goal is clear: to rejuvenate downtown Santa Cruz through hospitality and restaurants. Sam Woods, Santa Cruz Sky’s executive director of operations, explains that Santa Cruz Sky believes the city is on the cusp of a revitalization, driven in part by a recent influx of wealth to the community during the pandemic.
“A lot of people talk about Santa Cruz becoming this Los Gatos on the water. When you look at the price of homes here and the cost of living, what’s really shifted through COVID is that there is a lot more money coming into this community,” said Woods, who joined the team in August. “I think that it’s important that we build a network here so that we start supporting all these independent businesses — not just our restaurants, but all the restaurants. I think that if there’s more places that can open in downtown Santa Cruz, and be a part of the growth here, it helps each and every one of us.”
Santa Cruz Sky’s growth began during the pandemic. In 2020, Alderwood founder Dr. Ahmed Hamdy and Wall acquired Burn Hot Sauce, a Santa Cruz-based hot sauce company with distribution throughout the West Coast. In 2021, they founded Flashbird, a fast-casual restaurant serving fried chicken sandwiches, at Abbott Square Market in downtown Santa Cruz. Two new locations are set to open on 41st Avenue in the Pleasure Point neighborhood and in Scotts Valley early next year.
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In summer 2021, Alderwood Santa Cruz was recognized by the prestigious Michelin Guide, the first restaurant in Santa Cruz to earn a mention.
Earlier this year, Santa Cruz Sky established Bun & Sons, an in-house bakery that creates different breads for Alderwood Santa Cruz and fluffy potato buns for Flashbird. While not open to the public, an inconspicuous sign marks the entrance to the bakery in downtown Santa Cruz behind Flower Bar, a floral shop and café, which Hamdy’s wife, Noha Gowelly Hamdy, and her business partner Sharon Schneider founded in spring 2021. Flower Bar is a separate entity that does not fall under Santa Cruz Sky’s umbrella, but is considered part of the Alderwood family. The café sometimes offers extra Bun & Sons loaves for sale.
Its most high-profile upcoming addition is Alderwood Pacific, a more casual — but no less thoughtful — sister restaurant that aims to open before the end of the year on Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz, in the restaurant space previously occupied by Snap Taco and, before that, Assembly. The seasonal menu will focus on sandwiches, burgers and salads, with a raw bar as well as house-mixed cocktails on draft, beer and wine. Two of the more accessible options from the Alderwood Santa Cruz menu, the burger and the Caesar salad, will move to Alderwood Pacific, says Woods. Santa Cruz Sky also plans to take advantage of the large restaurant space by hosting private events.
Once Alderwood Pacific opens, the Santa Cruz Sky team plans to elevate the fine dining experience at Alderwood Santa Cruz further with more coursed menus, wine and liquor pairings and intimate special events.
The substantial expansion of culinary businesses under Santa Cruz Sky was partly planned and part the result of timely opportunities, explains Woods. “The plan has always been to expand where it felt right. And then I think as opportunities presented themselves, we decided to grab a hold and go with it,” she said. “When Alderwood Santa Cruz came to the community, the idea was to elevate and be the best restaurant here. But in saying that, they still wanted to have some elements on the menu like the burger, home fries and our infamous Caesar salad, that were more accessible, in addition to the $250 tomahawk steak that will be on there sometimes.”
However, the pandemic shutdown shone a stark light on the limitations of a fine dining restaurant and forced Hamdy and Wall to consider how they might diversify their portfolio to include different kinds of businesses. The idea for Flashbird stemmed from losing Alderwood Santa Cruz’s indoor dining and converting to takeout. Flashbird’s quick-service format means that the restaurant stall doesn’t need servers. “That has given us a different position in the marketplace while still being able to bring a really excellent product — fried chicken sandwiches made on our buns,” Woods said.
The controversial firing of an employee during the pandemic also brought an unwelcome spotlight to the internal politics at Alderwood. In June 2020, an off-duty employee dining at the restaurant and a group of patrons got into a physical fight. The restaurant fired the employee, a person of color, who believed he was the victim of racist remarks by the patrons. Outrage boiled over onto social media, and at least half of the staff quit in response. In a statement issued shortly after the altercation, Hamdy said Alderwood rejects “racism, bigotry, and prejudice in all its forms, and we reject violence in all its forms.” The patrons involved in the incident were banned from the restaurant for life.
Now Santa Cruz Sky is focused on the future. “We have moved forward and it serves no purpose to rehash the past,” Woods told Lookout via email.
A local at the forefront
Woods grew up in Capitola and only recently joined the restaurant industry. After high school, she studied fashion, business and marketing at the San Francisco Art Institute before going on to a 15-year career in the fashion industry, first in Los Angeles and then based out of New York City.
Working in wholesale sales, she built relationships with major brands and department stores like Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue, as well as independent stores across the United States. It gave her the opportunity to travel extensively throughout the U.S. and Europe, and she made it a priority to visit interesting restaurants wherever she went. “That really started to change the way that I looked and experienced food and created another interest for me,” said Woods. “Through that, I was able to experience some of the best restaurants in the world and fell in love with being in that space.”
After enduring lockdown in New York, Woods decided to leave the fashion industry and returned to the Santa Cruz area in late 2020 to be closer to family and all the natural beauty California has to offer. She was introduced to Hamdy earlier this year and was inspired by his vision for the community and shared his desire to be actively involved in that transformation.
“That really spoke to me. When you grow up someplace and you come back, you see some of the issues that still need to be resolved and how things have changed from some of the vibrance that was here when I was growing up,” Woods said. “I want to be a part of that now that I’m back in this community. I want to be a part of that change. And to be able to do that in a space where we are creating these exceptional restaurants and dining experiences is really exciting.”
As executive director of operations, Woods oversees and manages all of the businesses that operate under Santa Cruz Sky, from financials to hiring, and ensures that those pieces are cohesive with the overall vision for the company. Her enthusiasm is apparent and her experience dining at some of the best restaurants in the world gives her an edge, but she admits there’s a learning curve.
She compares her new role as learning how to sail. “When you learn how to sail a boat, the boat is sailing. It’s not like you’re stationary learning. You actually have to sail the boat while you’re learning to sail,” she said. “That’s my analogy for life and everything I’ve done. Sometimes you just have to get in and learn as the wind blows towards you, and navigate towards it.”
Woods feels that downtown Santa Cruz lacks options for tourists and locals to enjoy a night out as they would in other cities, perhaps visiting a wine bar at the start of the evening for an appetizer, then to a restaurant for dinner and finishing at a cocktail bar for a nightcap. She points out that persistent issues along Pacific Avenue, including many empty storefronts, are discouraging to guests. “That’s something we need to resolve,” she said. “I do really believe that we can change the landscape of our community if we work together. And I always think that breaking bread and enjoying food is the best way to do that.”