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Sondra Bernstein to ‘step back’ from Girl & Fig operations

Sonoma restaurateur Sondra Bernstein announced on Monday that she has “taken a step back from all operations” in the Girl & the Fig restaurant group.

Bernstein made the announcement March 1 in a newsletter to customers. Bernstein said she will retain her ownership stake in the company and continue in an advisory position, while John Toulze, current president of the restaurant group, has taken over the reins as the company’s new managing partner and will continue to handle day-to-day operations.

“We’ve been talking about this for a few years,” said Toulze, 46. ”And there was never going to be a great time to make that transition, but we haven’t run as a normal company for a while now so this felt like the right the time to do it.“

The Girl & the Fig made national headlines in February when former server Kimi Stout said she left her job at the restaurant last September after being told she could no longer wear a Black Lives Matter face covering while at work. The Plaza restaurant closed temporarily in the wake of the controversy, after threats were made to the building and staff. The restaurant reopened a week later.

Bernstein, 61, started her restaurant company in 1997 in Glen Ellen, with the help of two of her brothers and 17 employees, including Toulze. Over the past 23 years, the company grew to 240 staff members and included additional restaurants, a food truck, a country store with cottages, a catering company with an event space as well as a food product line and two cookbooks.

Bernstein said in the announcement that she is looking forward to continuing to manage the Sonoma Fig Foundation, her nonprofit organization dedicated to helping aspiring entrepreneurs in farming, food and wine, as well as managing the philanthropic goals for the company.

Her new website, sondra-bernstein.com, provides a hint as to how the preternaturally busy restaurateur may fill her new free time in 2021. The site is filled with hundreds of photos taken by Bernstein in Sonoma and during her travels as well as watercolors and blog posts.

Bernstein indicated in the announcement that “this is the right time for a personal change. Not only do I look forward to my next chapter (whatever that may be) but also can’t wait to visit family and friends, eat and drink in restaurants and finally get out of my house in the daylight hours.”

The restaurant group includes the Girl & the Fig restaurant on the Plaza in Sonoma, the Fig Café & Wine Bar in Glen Ellen, the Fig Caters, Fig Food online and the Suite D event venue in Schellville.

Reached by text on Monday, Bernstein told the Index-Tribune said she wanted the focus to be on Toulze going forward.

“Because Sondra and I have been partners for so long, in some ways this doesn’t change anything and in other ways it is a big deal,” Toulze told the Index-Tribune on Monday.

“It will be hard because Sondra has done such an amazing job with the brand and she has always been the public face of the restaurants, but she isn’t going to disappear altogether,” he said. “You can count on that.”

Upon hearing the news of Bernstein’s stepping down, colleagues and fans of the restaurant took to Facebook with accolades and reminiscences.

"When you were first getting started... you immediately inspired me,“ said Michelle Finn, who subsequently launched a bread baking business. "I loved that you never had an ego, always stayed true to yourself, and didn’t care what others thought. You inspired me back then, and continue to, today.“

“Congratulations to John on guiding the FigShip on a daily basis! And to Sondra for taking the Big Leap off the FigShip,” wrote culinary educator and author Mary Karlin. “I know you both will carry on with great creative strength. You both have been strong influencers in my culinary career in Sonoma County.”

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