Hit hard by storms, San Lorenzo Valley restaurants lean on community 

The restaurant Casa Nostra among the redwoods.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Road closures and power outages have been a near-constant fact of life in the San Lorenzo Valley since the parade of atmospheric rivers began New Year’s Eve. And as stressful as that’s been for restaurant owners, they’ve felt plenty of support from residents of the area that’s still recovering from 2020’s ruinous fires.

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Last week, Raffaele Cristallo, the owner of Casa Nostra in Ben Lomond, didn’t know how he was going to make payroll. What seemed like storm after storm had punished the San Lorenzo Valley, taking down trees, cutting out power and closing roads. Getting to the restaurant required a detour via Glen Arbor Road, making it incredibly difficult (and potentially dangerous at times) for customers to get there. Power outages had become a regular occurrence, and more storms were forecast.

When he heard that parts of Highway 9 would remain closed for the foreseeable future, he reached something of a breaking point.

“I was freaking out — how was I going to pay my employees?” said Cristallo, who has lived in the San Lorenzo Valley for 25 years. “I had to ask the community, and swallow my pride.”

He posted a plea for help to Facebook, warning that his Ben Lomond restaurant could face closure. He asked residents to buy gift certificates and visit the restaurant’s Scotts Valley location if they couldn’t make it to Ben Lomond.

The community responded.

“People have come forward,” he said, choking up. “I wanted to shake their hands. It’s been really emotional. It feels like the community has my back.”

Cristallo did make payroll that week and said that people have been supporting the restaurant in person and through purchasing gift certificates. But things are still tough. Last Tuesday’s storm packed another wallop, leaving the restaurant largely without power and having to rely on a generator, with no phone or internet service.

“We’re keeping regular hours — power or no power,” he said.

The past few years have been hard on all restaurants, but it’s been especially difficult for the San Lorenzo Valley area, which has had to grapple with the CZU Lightning Complex fire and this year’s storms in addition to the pandemic and its related challenges.

Debora La Placa of La Placa Family Bakery holds a tray of homemade pistachio almond cookies and pumpkin seed almond cookies.
Debora La Placa of La Placa Family Bakery holds a tray of homemade cookies.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Neighboring La Placa Family Bakery was without power this past week, but it was business (sort of) as usual otherwise. Both businesses are located directly by the Highway 9 closure, requiring customers to use the more circuitous Glen Arbor route. (Caltrans told Lookout on Monday that the agency was aiming to reopen the highway before the end of March.)

“It’s been an interesting time,” said Debora La Placa, whose parents own the Ben Lomond business. “We are staying positive. Eventually everything will come to an end.”

She praised the community for continuing to support the family-run bakery and restaurant during these trying times.

“The last few years, with the fire, COVID-19, storms — it’s been hard,” she said. “The [road] blockages make it really difficult to get here, but we are grateful for all the work being done.”

La Placa continues to be open full time, running on generators and going cash-only amid power outages. Like Casa Nostra, the La Placa family has welcomed community members without power to come in to warm up and charge their devices.

“We are really trying to be positive,” she added.

The Red Pearl, a Boulder Creek staple
The Red Pearl, a Boulder Creek staple.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Farther north in Boulder Creek, Jenny Wu, owner of The Red Pearl restaurant, said the storms have definitely added challenges. This past week, the restaurant had to be closed for three days due to the lack of power, but Wu was back in the kitchen Friday.

“Our regulars are still coming to support us. That’s been so helpful,” said Wu. “We’ve been busy — even without power, people have been calling us.”

Wu said it’s also been hard for her and her staff to get to the restaurant, but she believes her experience with the CZU fire has helped her have perspective when it comes to adversity. Wu lost her own home in the fire, and she continued to serve meals to her fellow evacuees even as she dealt with the aftermath.

“This is just a small thing compared to that,” she said. “We are a small town but it’s a great community.”