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Lack of staff, not customers, closes Top That Frozen Yogurt

When Top That Frozen Yogurt opened on Broadway in 2009, it capitalized on the self-serve and “pick your own toppings” trend, allowing customers to pile a mountain of treats on their frozen yogurt, totally customized to their unique taste. Not surprisingly, it hit a sweet note, drawing in a healthy line of customers, especially during the after-school rush. While the pandemic, fires and prolonged power outages put a dent in business, customers would flock back to this locally owned staple as soon as they were able.

It was a lack of staff, not consumers, that ended this Sonoma business last week.

“We were forced to close because we had no employees,” said Tiffany Brown, who served as general manager at the fro-yo business for the past four years. “The employees I have are all leaving for college. We could not find anyone over the age of 16 to work.”

State law requires that older teens or adults be present to open and close the store, for safety and liability. As one might expect, Top That often relied on local teens and college students to fill the four to six minimum wage positions required to run the business.

For the past few years, Top That had a steady base of employees, who were committed to their jobs. Whether furloughed during the pandemic when self-serve businesses could not operate, or when the shop closed during a power outage, they always came back. It was a tight-knit work family created by Brown and owner Lori Solis.

“We have had great employees,” Brown said, adding that she was proud to see them launch into college.

As a business that has always relied on the cyclical schedule of younger employees, they were used to replenishing the ranks every so often. But when Brown started her search for more employees this summer, she found little to no response.

“I did all the usual things — Craigslist, Indeed, a ‘for hire’ sign in the window, Facebook, Instagram — nothing really came of it,” Brown said.

It’s a trend seen across the region and state. According to a recent UC Berkeley Labor Center study on the effects of the pandemic on California businesses, the state has only recovered half the jobs lost to COVID-19, even when the Golden State’s job gains in the past four months were the largest in the nation. Of those job losses, 80% were low-wage positions, with the leisure and hospitality industry providing the lowest wages nationally. Some businesses are promoting higher wages and cash bonuses to incentivize new employees — Blue Ribbon Cleaning Service in Rohnert Park offered a $3,000 one-time payment for new house cleaners and even then, was unable to find anyone, according to the North Bay Business Journal.

Mom-and-pop shops don’t have that kind of capital, Brown said, they can’t afford to offer employees lucrative enticements. The few people she did hire didn’t work out, mostly due to their young age and fluctuating priorities between school and social lives. With COVID cases rising, power shut-off season looming and the disruption expected when Broadway is repaved and restriped this fall, “it was the right time to close,” Brown said.

The building was already on a month-to-month lease, making the decision easier. They considered alternative models that might be better steeled against the many struggles hitting small businesses in 2021, but ultimately it was time to lock the door.

“Last Wednesday, I ran out of product about 3-o’clock and I closed up. I made it through the last school rush and that was it,” Brown said.

She then posted to Facebook, a simple goodbye that read: “We regret to inform you that Top That Yogurt closed permanently on Aug. 26, 2021. Thank you for your support over the last 12 years. We will sincerely miss serving our beautiful community.”

They plan to sell off the yogurt equipment, freezers and other industrial items. The leftover toppings will be given away, possibly to local schools for a special treat. The cups and spoons are headed to Beltane Ranch, where Brown’s daughter works on special events.

It’s a bittersweet end for the frozen treat business.

“We love our families. It was fun to see kids come in, in their parent’s arms and then one day they’re up and walking and picking out their own toppings,” Brown said.

She also has a word of advice to protect other small businesses in this challenging climate. “Everyone, just go to your local stores if you want to keep them in town,” she said.

That’s a sentiment echoed by Mark Bodenhamer, president of the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce. While things got worse in the pandemic, a lack of staffing options is a problem that has long plagued Sonoma’s business community.

“It’s almost entirely the result of issues that we’re all aware of,” he said, pointing to the housing crisis, high cost of living and lack of outside transportation options to the Valley.

“It’s probably going to get worse or stay the same,” if nothing changes, he added.

Kathryn Reed of the North Bay Business Journal also provided reporting on this story.

Contact editor/publisher Emily Charrier at emily.charrier@sonomanews.com.

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