Upscale amenities add to gay resort town's country charms
by Matthew S. Bajko
Halfway up Guerneville's Main Street a sign beckoned to passersby.
"Bock! Bock! It's Chicken Day at the Market."
A chicken potpie, green chile chicken soup, and a Sonoma chicken and arugula salad were the featured menu items one Saturday in mid-September at the Big Bottom Market. The gourmet deli and grocery store's name, which can be read as a gay play on words, is derived from a nickname given to the area in the 1860s due to its location in a flood zone.
Inside locally produced cheeses and mustards line the shelves. Sweets from lesbian-owned Poco Dolce Confections and canned vegetables by organic food purveyor Happy Girl Kitchen Company are also for sale.
Among the wine selection are Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs by the gay-owned boutique vineyard Bjornstad Cellars.
Opened this past July the market is one of several new upscale stores setting up shop in Sonoma County's gay getaway resort town along the Russian River. The establishments are injecting a bit of city life into the tranquil country setting.
"I've had this dream of opening up a place that is very focused on locally sourced products," said Michael Volpatt, a partner in the market who also co-owns a PR firm named Larkin/Volpatt Communications with Kate Larkin. "I wanted a new project career-wise and I also wanted to be a part of what I am calling the Guerneville Renaissance."
Volpatt, who lives a short drive away from the market, teamed up with co-owner Crista Luedtke to develop the deli's menu. Luedtke and her former life partner, Jill McCall, opened Boon Hotel and Spa, a 14-unit resort a half-mile from downtown Guerneville on Armstrong Woods Rood.
The couple also opened in 2009 Boon Eat and Drink, which is a few doors away from the Big Bottom Market. Volpatt and others credit them with showing that more upscale businesses could survive in Guerneville.
"Crista has revived the town. She is inspiring other people to do good work," said Audrey Joseph, a San Francisco entertainment commissioner who owns a home in the area. "I see young couples walking in town, that is due to her work."
Joseph, a party promoter for the town's Lazy Bear weekends for hirsute gay men, recalled that in years past they made sure attendees didn't need to head into town.
"Guerneville was dying a slow death. There was nothing to do here," she said. "We did so many events during Lazy Bear they didn't have to worry about the town."
Since Boon emerged on the scene that has changed. The restaurant and music venue Trio, which strives to use local and sustainable products, and Whitetail Winebar, a purveyor of local winemakers right next door to Big Bottom Market, have opened for business. Both would feel right at home in any of San Francisco's trendy neighborhoods.
The influx of foodie destinations in the river town has caught the attention of food writers. This summer the San Francisco Chronicle's Inside Scoop blog on Bay Area restaurants noted, "Guerneville is really getting its groove on."
A writer for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat 's Guerneville microsite noted in June that in just a six-month time frame in early 2011 the business corridor went from appearing forlorn to looking "like Martha Stewart's garden, a sprout here, a blossom there, and now we are almost in full bloom."
Along with restaurateurs, artists have also staked claim to Guerneville. Several galleries have opened in recent years, including Studio Blomster. It is located in a small shed-like structure at the back of the parking lot on the right of Armstrong Woods Road a few feet from the intersection with Main Street.
David Blomster, a gay man who relocated from Los Angeles, took over the space nearly two years ago and reworked it to show off artwork. He chose the space for its small size to keep costs low and said sales "have been good."
"It is surprising the amount of sophisticated people who come through town," said Blomster, who also manages the Boon eatery. "There is a lot of art in the county. I am trying to show stuff that wouldn't be shown here."
Business at Boon has also been good, said Blomster, noting waits for a table can stretch to two hours on a busy Friday night.
"We want more restaurants to open. We are not averse to competition like that at all," he said.
Gay and straight visitors
One trend that has also worked to the advantage of the new businesses is the mix of straight and gay visitors who now vacation in the Russian River area. It no longer is seen as merely a getaway for gay men.
"When Fife's became a wedding destination it helped diversify the town. It brings more people into our ecosystem," said Volpatt. "That is what our businesses want."
There are more event weekends also helping to drive visitors to town, from a Jazz music festival to the San Francisco AIDS Foundation's Seismic Challenge daylong bike ride that culminates in the heart of downtown Guerneville.
"Every weekend from April to October something is going on," said Volpatt.
While businesses still heavily rely on the summer tourist season, they are finding that more and more people are calling Guerneville home year-round. The increased clientele during the slower fall and winter seasons helps keeps the stores afloat and open.
"It is amazing how many people are living here full-time and keeping their city places as pied-a-tiers," said Beth Rudometkin, a real estate loan officer with Community First Credit Union in Guerneville and secretary of the local chamber of commerce board. "When I left in the 1970s it was mainly a summer destination and the majority of properties were summer homes. Over the past year prices have come down and people are making this a full-time residence."
The town's business leaders have been encouraging shopkeepers to modernize their facades through forgivable or low-interest loan programs offered by the county redevelopment agency. Both the Guerneville 5 and 10, with a retro look, and the River Theater, with its Art Deco-inspired marquee, have upgraded their exteriors.
The new sense of vibrancy along the town's main thoroughfare has been noticeable, said Rudometkin, who grew up in Guerneville and moved back to town 15 years ago.
"Four years ago we had a lot of empty storefronts. Landlords were wanting sky-high rents and they were not up-keeping their properties," said Rudometkin, who joined the chamber board about four years ago. "We all pulled together and got things going to turn the town around."
Other improvements have been adding flower baskets along Main Street, replacing the light bulbs on the pedestrian bridge that crosses the river, upgrading sidewalks and repainting crosswalks. A group of Realtors and residents get together monthly to do a town cleanup.
"It just adds more beauty to the town and shows we respect it," said Rudometkin.
It also sets a tone for visitors, residents and other merchants, said Volpatt.
"The more beautiful we make the town it sends a message that this is not a place to be if you want to create blight," he said.
The new businesses, in addition to the re-opening this fall of the old gay Triple R Resort as r3, are having another impact. They are providing jobs for a younger generation of locals. Rudometkin saw one son ditch town for San Francisco to find work while her other son, Mason McGahan, stayed put and "stuck it out" she said.
McGahan, who is gay and works at a variety of places, said he wanted to remain and help see his hometown thrive rather than abandon it.
"To me it is about the people who live here and wanting to see the town succeed. I felt if I left that would be one less person to keep the businesses going and running smoothly," he said. "I've lived here since 1997 and seen the town go through a lot."
Key going forward is having the r3 back in business, said McGahan, with its 24 rooms a block away from the commercial corridor and pool parties drawing in people staying elsewhere in the area.
"It provides more access people can have to the town. They can walk and check out the shops and the difference in the businesses going on," said McGahan, who worked for the r3's previous owners.