Growing up in Philadelphia, Sondra Bernstein says she didn’t think much about food. She thought she might like to be a photographer. But her first job after finishing up at Philadelphia College of Art Design, was at TGI Fridays.
And “thank goodness” for that.
She credits her experience there with much of her success building her business.
“I was a terrible server, but it gave me the bug,” she said.
She joined the chain’s management training team and spent several years in her early 20s traveling the country helping to open new locations.
She decided to go back to school and spent a grueling year at the Restaurant School in Philadelphia, where she took classes from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. and then rotated through every possible position at the school’s nonprofit restaurant into well into the evening each day.
“I learned a lot, particularly that I didn’t want to be a chef, but I knew I wanted to go into the restaurant business,” she said.
After a few jobs managing restaurants in Philadelphia in the late 1980s, she and her boyfriend at the time decided to pack up and move to Los Angeles. She came to Sonoma for the first time for a vacation in 1992, and loved it so much that she moved up to the area for good three months later.
Her first job in the area was at Viansa and by the end of four years she was the winery marketplace’s director of operations.
“I learned a lot there as well but my main takeaway was that if I am going to work that hard, I should work for myself,” she said.
John Toulze worked for Bernstein at Viansa while still a college student and they have been business partners ever since.
Bernstein looked around for a spot and, armed with a loan from her brother, opened her first Girl and the Fig restaurant in Glen Ellen in 1997.
“We got great reviews there from the start,” she said.
Three years later she opened her second restaurant, the still-popular Girl and the Fig, on the Plaza, and in the years that followed, launched Fig Caters, Estate Restaurant (sold to Darius Anderson and now known as the General’s Daughter), Suite D and the Fig Rig food truck. Earlier this year, she took over the kitchen at Murphy’s Irish Pub, and just last month opened the Rhone Room down Broadway at Sonoma Roadside Shops.
Like any restaurateur worth their salt, Bernstein works around the clock.
“I am working all day every day,” she says, “But if I’m consulting with a winemaker on a new wine, or designing the inside of the Rhone Room,’ it doesn’t feel like work.”
Her company was on track to close its most successful year ever before the fire.
“We’ll tighten our belts and make it through,” she said. “I have 240 employees counting on me. A restaurant business can slip away really easily. People rely on me so as a result I am very conservative and very cautious.”
People call her all the time for advice and she is happy to give it.
“Restaurant people are both competitive and collaborative,” she said. “It’s a small community here, we’re all friends. We all face the same issues, just on a different scale.”
Bernstein stressed that she runs her business like a business.
“Tomorrow we have our quarterly meeting,” she explained. “If we are not busy, what are we not doing right? We never take full seats for granted. Every recipe is costed out, we do constant price checks, we never get complacent.”
Bernstein lives simply and reinvests everything that the restaurants make back into the business.
The catering business is the fastest growing part of her company. In addition to catering close to 100 weddings last year, Fig Caters provides the food offered at several wineries and tasting rooms, including at Viansa, 20 years later.
While it may seem that everything Bernstein touches turns to gold, she has seen her fair share of setbacks.
Her “Girl and the Gaucho” restaurant, while still one of her favorites concepts, failed to take off in Glen Ellen. Bernstein cut her losses and revamped the spot later as the Fig Café. For two years, she tried to get a Girl and the Fig off the ground in Petaluma, but sold the lease when it became clear that Petaluma’s nightlife scene on her block wouldn’t be happening anytime soon. She was devastated when a drunk driver crashed into her Fig Pantry and Cottages, but after losing the complete high season of business, she decided to cut her losses and move forward with other ideas.
“It doesn’t make any sense to hang on too long when something isn’t going in the right direction,” she said. “Doing that can suck the life right out of you.”
“I love the creative part of the process and John (Toulze) makes it happen,” she said. “I start it, get it to a place where it is ready to be executed and hand it to John,” she said with a laugh. “He makes it happen or hires who he needs to make it happen.”
She and Toulze oversee 26 managers who run the different aspects of the business.
“And even though I am a control freak, we let those managers manager,” she says. “We train them and let them take on responsibility. We want them to feel invested in their job.”
Bernstein repeatedly expressed how grateful she is for the community’s support of her business. Her desire to give back is evidenced by her new Girl and the Fig Foundation, which is administered by the Community Foundation of Sonoma County.
“It’s not huge, and the real money won’t come until I die,” she said. “But I am enjoying giving small amounts to kitchens at the high school, at the Boys and Girls Clubs and at Teen Services. I would love to inspire students to go into the restaurant business.”
What’s next for Bernstein?
She has lots of ideas that she hasn’t yet been able to execute, including Girl in the Deep Blue Sea (somewhere on the Napa River) and a vegetarian restaurant, Girl in the Garden.
And soon, she hopes, she’ll have an update on whether her Noodle Springs project for the Highway 12 container village is proceeding.
“I want to say that that will be it,” she laughed. “That I’ll be done after Noodle Springs. But who knows? “I need variety, I get bored really easily.”
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