A City, If You Can Keep It: And the changes are exciting

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A Winters Express opinion column

By Richard Casavecchia
Special to the Express

I’m even more excited about Carboni’s than I was before. After my last column, I reached out to Mike Olivas, one of the owners of Hotel Winters, and asked if I could pick his brain on his plan for the restaurant. Consider this part two of three on this topic.

Carboni’s and Hotel Winters began with a synchronous concept that got derailed by COVID two weeks after opening. If you’ve been paying attention, you know there hasn’t been a grand opening yet even after two years.

The full concept for the Hotel is impressive. The plan is for the Hotel and Restaurant to be, what I would describe as, a hub of sorts to many aspects of Winters with a “whole of business” concept. Downtown will have a higher level of interconnectedness, the alleys will begin to play a role in the downtown experience, and there will be a school-to-work program for local students.

The unfortunate part is, Carboni’s Ristorante is basically starting over with new cooks that need to be trained. A consultant chef is heading the kitchen for now and it sounds like he will come back periodically to update specials once the team has its feet under it.

I was told the new menu should be finalized within four weeks. I hope there is a full-time Executive Chef again in the future to maintain consistency and personality, but only time will tell.

The “change” that prompted the departure of Chef Nguyen is the business plan calling for catering to account for 60 percent of the food revenue. This has not been the case largely due to COVID restrictions on gatherings stunting the opening of the restaurant and hotel. To achieve that goal, the restaurant menu must have closer food supply alignment with the catering menus and be less chef-driven.

The reality for every restaurant in town is they cannot survive on local resident business alone. Even before the currently 8.5 percent inflation, there aren’t enough customers nor disposable income in town to keep the doors open for our downtown restaurants. Not Buckhorn, not Preserve, not Putah Creek, not Carboni’s, nor any of the eateries that don’t occupy a prominent corner.

Gone are the days of locals’ only places being our primary dining options, it is just not economically possible in the contemporary economy.

A Chef driven menu is what we have been enjoying at Carboni’s, but for a large business like a hotel with an integrated catering side, this makes inventory complicated. Dishes that can be easily made for large groups do not always share common ingredients with made-to-order Primi or Secondi Piatti dishes in an Italian restaurant.

From the sound of it, the restaurant will have a fixed staple menu that will likely share elements with catering options, and a periodic chef-driven list of specials. Ingredients will still be locally sourced farm to fork whenever possible. More on the food once the menu is set.

The most interesting part to me is the emphasis on culinary students. The exhibition kitchen is planned to be a place where Winters High School (WHS) Culinary students can work in a professional kitchen and train in a culinary and hospitality program with a school-to-job pipeline.

Developers often give lip service to creating job opportunities for residents in their proposals. Carboni’s wants to put their money where their mouth is and give the youth of the town an opportunity to get real-world experience in a field that can take them all over the world. WHS Teacher Chris Novello runs a fantastic culinary program at the high school as it is, but the opportunity to train in a professional kitchen for paying customers makes the program that much better.

If you read closely above, you saw I mentioned alleys. Because the details of the “what” involve more than just the Hotel and restaurant, I don’t think it is my place to spill the plans for other businesses that may or may not be finalized or involved and to whom I haven’t spoken.

But the Hotel courtyard and the purposefully positioned two back gates will likely become integral parts of the experience and foot traffic circulation in our downtown nightlife, along with 35 Main St. aka “Pocket Park” and Newt’s Expressway.

Once everything is in place, events on Main Street may have people flowing from the tasting rooms to the Hotel wading pool, to the rooftop bar, to any of our downtown staple eateries. I have said before, I like the idea of an Italian Piazza concept but it is difficult to achieve within customary American suburban design plans. With the Hotel, however, we may get a unique Winters version of that. I look forward to finding out.

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