Coffee and kindness: Sonoma finds light in darkness

Sonoma awoke on Wednesday to a still, cool morning and no power.

The few cars on the road before dawn navigated the streets carefully, traveling through dark traffic lights.

Most of the early risers said they were in search of coffee and several compared notes on street corners as to who was open and who was rumored to have coffee.

Safeway had expected to be ready for customers early, but trouble with its generators delayed the supermarket's opening until early afternoon. Lucky and Sonoma Market were open but neither had coffee and many shelves had been cleared - either because the goods had warmed or they were sold out.

With wifi out almost everywhere, Sonoma's spotty cell coverage was readily apparent. AT&T customers wished they had Verizon and vice versa.

When the doors opened to the charging center at the Sonoma Valley Veterans Memorial Building at 8 a.m., no one was waiting, but by mid-morning more than a dozen people were inside, charging their devices.

Mark Bodenhamer, CEO of the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce and Tim Zahner, director of the Sonoma Valley Vistors Bureau, made the rounds around town Wednesday and Thursday, working on lists of who was open. Volunteers showed up bright and early to the Visitors Bureau offices on the Plaza ready to help tourists who found themselves in the middle of an unusual vacation.

Stores that were determined to open made adjustments.

Friedman's Home Improvement Center staff met customers at the door and personally accompanied them around the large dark store by flashlight.

Homegown Bagels gave away much of its bagel stock to quickly clear the shelves.

HopMonk Tavern and the Reel & Brand were among the first restaurants to open on Wednesday, with grills in their beer gardens. Food trucks and farmers market set-ups cropped up all over town Wednesday and Thursday to appreciative customers.

The Bonneau 76 gas station in Schellville not only managed to keep pumping gas, but, according to Bodenhamer, also continuously brought in extra ice -- and lowered its prices.

Acts of kindness

Despite -- or maybe because of -- the frustrations of the outage, random acts of kindness were spotted all over town. Former City Councilmember Gary Edwards, drove around in his refrigerated truck and offered to store perishables for several local restaurants. Sweet Scoops ice cream, knowing the shelf life of its popular product, set up its stand at several locations around town and gave its ice cream away.

The Basque Boulangerie was the first to offer early morning coffee on Wednesday thanks to a generator brought in by one of its employees. By Wednesday afternoon, the cafe was giving away all of its inventory.

Vineyard manager David Cook's CVM store on Eighth Street East offered free donuts and coffee and a charging station.

On Thursday morning, 3 Badge Beverage company owner August Sebastiani opened the doors to the 3 Badge Firehouse on Patten Street for free coffee and pastries, fruit and a charging station.

From the moment the lights went out, MacArthur Place hotel was fully operational under generator power and staff told everyone who stopped by to spread the word that they had wifi and lots of outlets. By mid-afternoon Wednesday, the bar was packed with locals, including a half-dozen kids propped against walls charging their devices.

'I am hearing really cool stories about the community rallying together,' said Bodenhamer. 'Businesses are really working hard to figure out how to serve the community.'

Fun after dark

After nightfall, a convivial crowd nursed cold beers in complete darkness at both Steiners and the Town Square bar. Murphy's Irish Pub had its generator working Wednesday night and a full house, but alas couldn't figure out how to offer its weekly trivia game.

What did the kids do?

Students spotted around town seemed cheerful to be out of school for the rest of the week and all sports events were canceled for the athletes.

For the kids home from school on Thursday and Friday, both Sugarloaf State Park and the Sonoma Ecology Center quickly put together one-day pop-up camps. A robust crowd of kids was also spotted at the oft-deserted skate park on Highway 12.

'I found it heartwarming to hear about families living without electronics,' said Sonoma School District associate superintendent Bruce Abbott. 'Family board game night is back.'

Sonoma Valley High School senior Reagan Wheatley headed down to Corte Madera to go shopping.

'We ran into a bunch of our classmates there, some of whom were shopping and the rest doing homework outside on the wifi,' said Wheatley.

'While this is inconvenient, at least people can easily leave town and a short drive away get to power and internet,' said City Manager Cathy Capriola. 'Hopefully people will take advantage of this time with their families and do something fun.'

St. Francis Solano School reopened on Thursday, bringing students back for a half day. Justin-Siena in Napa, learning its lesson from being closed for almost three weeks during the Oct. 2017 fires, implemented one of its new 'digital learning days.' Students download assignments via wifi before any power outage and stay home from school doing the assignments offline.

Glen Ellen and Kenwood

Up Highway 12, both Glen Ellen and Kenwood stores and residents made the most of a unique situation.

En Garde tasting room in Kenwood decided to open when a couple from Naples, Florida showed up, said hospitality ma nager Paul Gillmore.

'We were thinking of closing then people walked in,' he said.

Gillmore said they didn't know how to let people know that they are open since they can't call anyone and can't access their website.

The small businesses in Kenwood are working together to let customers know who is open, just like they did when the 2017 fires shut down the town, he said.

'We are supporting each other, as always,' he said.

A tough time for local businesses

With a few notable exceptions, most locals stores and restaurants were not able to operate without power.

Cafe LaHaye owner Saul Gropman put a sign on his door that said, 'Thanks to PG&E we have no power and will not be open until further notice.'

He spoke to the Index-Tribune while charging his devices at MacArthur Place about his frustration.

'I've got a small generator but that if the outage lasts past Thursday I'll need to throw everything out,' he said. 'It's a loss of both inventory and business. I really feel like PG&E jumped the gun.' He added that he wouldn't be filing a commercial insurance claim as 'last time, after the fires, they paid and then just raised my rates.'

Bodenhamer checked in with dozens of the chamber's business members over the past 48 hours. 'Their frustration was palpable,' he said.

Harvest was also a concern at local vineyards.

Csaba Szakal, proprietor and winemaker of En Garde, said he wanted to harvest on Wednesday but could not because the winery doesn't have electricity. Not being able to harvest when he wants could cause the quality of the wine to suffer, he said. He's also upset about the affect the power shutoff will have on the business economy.

'This is a disruption of the economy. It's really bad for everybody,' he said.

Guests in his tasting room from Naples, Florida, who are regular visitors to Sonoma Valley agreed.

'It's ridiculous what (PG&E) has done to the local economy. It's really screwed the tourist season here,' said Florida tourist Mark Johnson.

He has visited 'probably 15 times over the last 12 years' with Carol Phillips, and they said they think visitors who aren't as familiar with the region will opt not to take the chance on visiting in the fall – one of the busiest tourist seasons – if they think the power might be turned off on the whim of the utility company.

The general manager at Kenwood Inn and Spa, David Jessup, said that without power, he has to direct guests to find somewhere else to go. A few opted to stay on, but without power they can't take a hot shower in the morning, Jessup said.

'We have gas so we were able to serve breakfast,' he said, and the hotel reduced the room rate by half for the inconvenience. But the hotel will be losing revenue while the power is out; it's a sacrifice that will have a trickle-down affect as employees won't be needed.

The New Normal

If these power outages are the new normal, it is reasonable to expect that Sonoma Valley will get better and better at navigating the challenge of a power outage.

Bodenhamer, of the Chamber of Commerce, said it was 'a really positive experience' joining forces with the City and other community groups during the outage.

With each passing hour, more and more businesses figured out how to serve their customers.

Residents figured out how and where to get cell service and power. 'Thank god for MacArthur Place,' said local parent Beth Fenton.

The City executed its emergency plans and finetuned it each day. 'This is good practice,' said Capriola.

With additional reporting by Anne Ernst. Email Lorna at

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