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How Chefs, Wineries and Breweries Worked to Save the Dining Scene

The current boom in casual dining looks like the future

Here’s a toast to the resilience of food folks.

The pandemic forced a sudden and vertiginous shut down of restaurants, breweries, and wine tasting rooms. For a long while everything was closed except groceries and take-out dining. To stem the tide of lost revenue, swift cuisinartists made a necessary pivot and formed alliances that took win/win to a whole new level. Food trucks pulled up beside breweries, chefs catered private events and pop-ups popped up everywhere. Variations on these creative alliances expanded with the gradual reawakening of DIY food venues. The current boom in casual dining looks like the post-Covid future, with infrastructure pared down and Julia Child era amenities the stuff of white tablecloth memories.

Pop-ups and food trucks were already exciting the Santa Cruz dining scene before the closures. Many chefs surfed the trend toward abbreviated menus of casual choices, 3-star Michelin chef David Kinch, for example, unveiled a trendy pizza parlor Mentone (now reopened) just weeks before the spring 2020 closure. At the popular downtown Birichino Winery Tasting Room, visiting food vendors made guest appearances, and tastings moved to sidewalk tables, winemakers Alex Krause and John Locke invited favorite bbqs and grills to visit each week. Necessity is the mother of partnership invention.

After a year of patio tastings, Beauregard Vineyards opened Slow Coast Wine Bar in the Highway One village of Davenport, ten minutes north of Santa Cruz. Still testing food partnerships, the wine bar offers a stunning ocean view as well as catered cheeses and charcuteries to enjoy with Ryan Beauregard’s wines. “We had to serve food in order to open,” says the winemaker. “So that’s when we started reaching out to food trucks and various caterers.” Catered appetizers also join the flights of Beauregard wines a few miles up the mountain at the winery’s flagship Bonny Doon estate tasting room. The Davenport wine bar is currently offering wines by the bottle, glass, and 1oz pours, allowing tasters to create their own flights.

At her Aptos Village Ser Winery Tasting Room, winemaker Nicole Walsh has been proactive in doing whatever it took to stay open, including carving out table seating from her extra parking space. “Having an outdoor space has been critical for my business during this past year. I am also so happy it let us have a place for the community to get out and enjoy some time with friends and partners.” Ser has recently been welcoming creative food partners, such as the prolific chef Diego Felix of Colectivo Felix whose Argentine-inspired empanadas have popped up in the tasting room to pair with Walsh’s wines.

Katherine Stern, who for a decade was head chef at Seabright’s La Posta, reinvented herself at the al fresco cooking outlet Midway. Her ingenious recipe designs energize the Santa Cruz farmers market landscape and are now popping up at Ser. “These events at Ser tasting room have been an exciting collaboration,” says Stern. “Even pre-pandemic, the opportunity for a food vendor to reach the community through a pre-existing business is a fantastic option to get things going. It allows new businesses to test out new ideas and explore the demographic, seeing what works and what might need some tweaking. The goal for the Midway is still to find a brick and mortar location, but in the meantime, various pop ups and the weekend farmers markets have been wonderful platforms to reach our customers.”

At the Westside’s Humble Sea, one of the area’s most exuberant breweries, innovative food collaborations are the house specialty. The four-year-old home of trendy craft beers, Humble Sea partners with Colectivo Felix, Full Steam Dumpling, Tori Man, and various pizza purveyors, among others. The variety changes daily to the delight of Humble Sea’s many fans.

“We were using food trucks and popups before the pandemic to diversity our food availability beyond our kitchen. Right now we’re not sure about reopening the kitchen. It’s been great to have lots of different foods,” says Humble Sea brewer Nick Pavlina.

Fran Grayson, a veteran of food truck cooking and now proprietor of the oceanfront Steamer Lane Supply, says the restaurant scene was primed for this trend before the pandemic. “The trucks-at-breweries thing pre-dates the pandemic for sure,” she says. She sees it as a natural partnership, “because the breweries need the trucks and the trucks need people gathered in one place.”

“There has been some increase in pop-ups and certainly a substantial amount of new weekly-order type businesses as chefs became unemployed due to restaurant closures, and decided to do their own thing in that way,” says Grayson. “Some pretty fun stuff happening in that realm.” 

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