ST. HELENA — After 30 years, St. Helena’s Terra and Bar Terra will close at the end of service on Saturday — a major loss for the region’s food scene.
Owners Lissa Doumani and Hiro Sone had created the benchmark for a style of modern California cuisine, fusing European and Japanese influences. And they had also maintained a consistently exceptional Napa Valley dining experience that was rewarded for decades by reviewers such as Michael Bauer and Michelin.
“It is mostly about staffing,” Doumani said. “It is so difficult to find someone; there are so many more businesses opening, and housing is so limited and expensive.”
One cook was driving from Danville (62 miles away) to work at Terra, and their chef was traveling from a place near Lake Berryessa, commuting 30 miles each way on a mountainous and curvy road.
“At the end of service, these are horrible drives,” she said. “Add to that when our staff has to come to work — which is between 2 and 3:30 p.m. — the traffic is out of control and so there is more stress.”
The difficulties of finding staff and the challenges for employees to find affordable places to live in the valley have been worsened by the recent fires, reducing housing stocks further and increasing rents, according to Doumani.
But the hardest part of the couple’s decision was having to tell the staff.
“It was so hard,” she said. “The amazing thing was they were actually trying to console us. We have a very close friendship with everyone who works at Terra.”
Labor shortages are not new in the Napa Valley. But with the recent (and scheduled) opening of new hotels, restaurants, brewpubs and cafes, this issue is only going to increase.
Christopher Kostow, chef at Napa Valley’s three-Michelin-star The Restaurant at Meadowood and co-owner of The Charter Oak, wrote in a Facebook post that shared the news of Terra’s closing, “These are the good ones — class acts and trailblazers — who have poured themselves into that restaurant for 35 years. Staffing shortages aren’t just painful, they are becoming fatal. This is the canary in the coal mine.”
“Being short-staffed or understaffed is both challenging operationally, but also emotionally,” Kostow said in a subsequent interview. “We (chefs) got into this line of work to please people, to wow them, to provide great sustenance and comfort — It is hard to stomach contemplating sacrificing the level of execution because you can’t find enough, or properly trained and focused people.”
Terra had a reputation as creating a strong and lasting staff culture that was almost legendary, with many cooks and waitstaff having been there for decades.
“We have always been so lucky to have wonderful, dedicated people working with us,” Doumani said. “One server, Gwen, has been with us 20 years; we have three brothers that have been with us over 10 years; Maria, who does desserts, over 20 years; and prep fellow Gregorio for over 15 years. Some (former staff) are even coming back to help us through the close.”
As recently as a few months ago, the couple had planned to keep the doors open for at least another 10 years — they had signed a new lease. But their situation became untenable.
“We actually made the final decision very quickly, possibly too quick since it’s only three days away and so many people want to come by and say goodbye,” Doumani said.
As for what’s next, the couple does not rule out opening another restaurant.
“Future plans?” Doumani asked. “First, we need to find a buyer for the restaurant. Then we’ll get the weeds cut back around our house, maybe take a vacation longer than a week and then we shall see. We aren’t done, we are just considering the next adventure — and restaurants are always an adventure every day.”
Originally published in the Napa Register, May 2018