Normalcy, it turns out, smells a lot like freshly baked pizza.
Mountain Mike’s Pizza, one of nearly a dozen Santa Rosa restaurants that were destroyed in the 2017 wildfires, reopened its doors Friday, the latest milestone in the city’s long and difficult recovery.
The new 4,400-square-foot restaurant on Cleveland Avenue is more than a pizzeria — it’s a place for the local community to gather, said Jeff Okrepkie, founder of Coffey Strong, a group of Coffey Park residents that banded together to help neighbors connect and rebuild. For residents of fire-ravaged Coffey Park, the restaurant’s opening is a hopeful sign that businesses are returning to support them, he said.
“This is the first business we lost that’s come back,” said Okrepkie, who stopped by the pizzeria Friday.
Located a little over a half-mile south of its original location, the new Mountain Mike’s is the third restaurant to reopen after being destroyed. Sweet T’s and Willi’s Wine Bar have both recently reopened at new locations in Windsor and in Santa Rosa’s Town and Country shopping center.
A fourth, Cricklewood, has not announced plans to reopen.
“It’s a piece of the neighborhood and community that’s coming back,” said Okrepkie. “This is just one of those last pieces.”
Sonu Chandi, president and CEO of Chandi Hospitality Group, which operates the restaurant, said rebuilding was never a question.
“We have faced many challenges after the fires that ravaged our area, and there have been many obstacles during this rebuilding process. There has been a lot of blood, sweat and tears that have gone into making this rebuild a reality,” said Chandi, whose family owns five Mountain Mike’s restaurants in Sonoma County as well as downtown eateries Bollywood, Mercato, Stout Brothers and Beer Baron.
The expanded pizzeria has a full bar, seating for 160, patio, a game room, 20 beer taps and its own brewery. It was designed to be more of a hangout than a take-out pizzeria, costing the business more $1 million to rehab and more than a year to complete.
Rather than rebuilding on their old lot, which still stands vacant, the family took over the lease from a long-empty restaurant and nightclub at the intersection of Cleveland and Russell Avenue to speed the process of reopening.
“It was basically just four walls,” said Joti Chandi, who led the Mountain Mike’s reopening.
In total, the loss of the restaurant cost the company upwards of $750,000, along with a number of staff who moved away from the county due to the cost and availability of housing after the fires, according to Sonu Chandi. They have retained seven of the 16 original Cleveland Avenue staff members, including general manager Katie Chapman, many of whom worked at other Mountain Mike’s locations while the space was renovated.
“I put a lot of work into that store,” said Chapman, who had been promoted to management before the Tubbs fire destroyed the former location. “I lived down the street, and I remember waking up and smelling the smoke. I called Manu (Chandi) and she said we lost everything. I just started crying. It was my second home.”
The first night of the fires was also harrowing for Joti Chandi, the company’s chief operating officer. After receiving an alarm call he went to the store with hopes of saving it. He quickly realized fire had already taken hold.
“I thought I could put out the fire. It was heartbreaking to see our building, but there was smoke everywhere,” he said.
Following the fires, the family started delivering pizza to shelters and raised more than $50,000 for fire victims. “We couldn’t really do anything, so we just started delivering pizza,” said Joti Chandi.
Throughout Friday’s lunch rush, patrons stopped in for pizza and salad, checking out the new space.
Contractor Chris Grabill, who stopped in for lunch said he appreciated the Chandi group rebuilding in the neighborhood rather than leaving.
“It’s both rare and a testament to our community that people that lost everything understand the responsibility of rebuilding in the community. “It’s not the easiest road to take, but it shows a sense of responsibility,” he said.
“The only way you’re going to have community again is to have a place for families to gather again. It’s important to have a place to enjoy each others company,” Grabill said.
Hugging old friends and welcoming new patrons, on Friday, the Chandi family said they were proud to be able to bring the restaurant back.
“This new location will show the Coffey Park community that when we all work together, we can build better and stronger. We know many friends and patrons who lived in that community so it’s very personal for us, and our new location will start new fresh memories for many families,” Sonu Chandi said.