Last month’s wine-country wildfires were cruelest to those who lost loved ones or their homes, but those with businesses in the affected areas are also struggling. What will the future look like for a cheese counter whose best patrons are temporarily homeless?
Colette Hatch is the longtime cheese coordinator for Oliver’s Markets, which operates four upscale grocery stores in the Santa Rosa area. The chain’s Montecito location is adjacent to Fountaingrove, the high-end residential development where many homes burned.
“The first week was awful,” recalls Hatch, whose own home was barely spared. “We lost all of our customers. We were selling water and staples.” One Oliver’s manager was in the hospital in labor when the fires broke out and had to be evacuated in the middle of childbirth.
“What we saw at our other stores was people buying for other people,” says Hatch. “Some were housing friends or wanted to give a gift to people who did things for them.”
Many Fountaingrove residents were physicians at the nearby Kaiser Hospital. According to Hatch, 60 doctors lost their homes, and they were her customers. “Those are the people who entertain on weekends,” says the cheesemonger. “I don’t know where they are. It’s very hard to find a house now.” One shopper told Hatch that a home she was looking to buy before the fire has spiked from $800,000 to $1.4 million.
Once it was safe to return to her own home, Hatch did what any cheesemonger would. “I took a big cheese tray to the firefighters at the bottom of my street,” she says. “Cheese and crackers and panforte and jam. It was very emotional. They probably had enough of everything, but you need to express something for these people who worked so hard.”
The upcoming holiday season is a big mystery for merchants like Hatch. Should they stock their counters as if nothing happened? Will traumatized people want less cheese, more cheese, different cheese?
“I’m not exactly sure what I’m going to do, to be honest,” admits Hatch. “I think we’re not seeing the total impact yet. I don’t think we’ll have a true picture until the end of December. Everybody is still numb and would like to recreate a normal life.”
One recent patron who looked particularly distressed told Hatch she had just gone through her home’s ashes. “I put some cheese on a cracker and just presented it to her,” said the monger. “You don’t know what else to do.”
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