Story David Bolling | Photos Steven Krause
Twenty years, eight restaurants, 220 employees, uncountable thousands of bottles of Rhône wine and an infinite amount of goodwill ago, Sondra Bernstein set up shop in a former pizza parlor in Glen Ellen and launched a little Wine Country empire.
She called the Glen Ellen eatery “the girl & the fig,” all lowercase with an ampersand, like e.e. cummings, or perhaps in the spirit of the sixties counter-culture rejection of formality and convention. The cuisine was fresh French and California—including what became a legendary (if seasonal) ripe fig salad—and the wine was strictly Rhône.
She had spent the previous four years as operations manager for the Italian market and tasting room at Viansa Winery, and she hungered to branch out on her own. “I just wanted a little café, a place to bake a pie,” she says. “I wanted something where I could control my own destiny.” What happened, you have to wonder today while pondering the unfolding breadth of her career, to that little café and the pie?
John Toulze, her business partner for all these 20 years, was also working at Viansa while he studied to become an accountant. She took him with her—although neither of them really knew how to cook—so he kissed his accounting career goodbye and she opened that first restaurant in 1997 with “no money and very few wines.”
Capital, of course, is fundamental to the success of any business, especially a restaurant, one of the riskier investments any entrepreneur can make. And having an appealing and approachable wine list is a foundation-level necessity if you’re serving food in Wine Country.
To make matters worse, in order to populate her cellar she dropped into the Wine Exchange, a Plaza store since closed, and strictly on impulse loaded her basket with Rhône varietals. Twenty years ago, the Sonoma palate was all cabernet, chardonnay and a side of zinfandel. Visiting tourists—the essential customer base for a successful Sonoma restaurant—at least knew about Bordeaux and Burgundy. But Rhône? Most people could neither spell it nor find it on a map, let alone name a Rhône varietal, or pronounce one if shown a list. Carignan? Cinsault? Mourvèdre?
So, if you were a VC investor making book on Sondra Bernstein in 1997, it’s doubtful you would have offered to fund her. On paper, the girl & the fig did not look like a sure thing. But you can’t know Sondra on paper.
Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Philadelphia, she had a freshly minted degree in fine art photography and no idea what to do with it when she took a server job at a local TGI Fridays just to make ends meet. The popular chain—a very far cry from the fig—proved to be both an unexpected pleasure and a doorway into the restaurant business. “I fell in love with it,” she says, “being around people, the creativity of food. It wasn’t what I expected.”
Meeting Sondra for the first time is like running into an old friend; you immediately feel that you know her. Her warmth is encompassing and contagious. Those qualities helped propel her quickly through the ranks at TGI, and she eventually became first a trainer and then a specialist in opening new locations. Along the way she found time to earn a degree in culinary and restaurant management from the Restaurant School in Philadelphia and soon she was managing other restaurants, first in Philly and then in Los Angeles, a city that, for her, “never jelled.”
She and a boyfriend came to Sonoma County on a Wine Country vacation and she moved here three months later. Since then, she’s only been back to L.A. once.
Despite a lack of capital and the mysterious (and prescient) devotion to a “Rhône-Alone” wine list, the girl & the fig took off. Toulze learned to cook on the job, working behind the line with the chef. “John picked it up like a sponge,” says Sondra. “One day he just said, ‘I want to be the chef.’ I said OK. It was never something I wanted to do.”
And then along came Michael Bauer. The influential (some say “all-powerful”) San Francisco Chronicle food critic found the fig, and he loved it. Within weeks of his review, the very ambiance of tiny Glen Ellen (population maybe 1,000 when the Airbnbs are all full) experienced a not-so-subtle shift. More cars were parked along Arnold Drive, especially on weekends; more tourists could be seen walking hand-in-hand through the village. One Saturday afternoon a local resident spotted a Ferrari, a Porsche Carerra GT and a Lamborghini Diablo—a million dollars’ worth of automobiles on the hoof—parked end-to-end outside the fig.
“In the beginning, we had such good press,” says Sondra, in a breath of understatement.
Among the people who flocked to the Glen Ellen fig were the owners of the Sonoma Hotel, on the corner of West Spain and First Street West, who had opened a somewhat uninspiring restaurant on the first floor. Bernstein expressed her interest in the space, should it ever become available, and it did.
So in 2000, the girl & the fig moved to Sonoma, the original fig became the girl & the gaucho, and the emerging shape of a modest restaurant empire began to appear. There are now at least two tapas restaurants in Sonoma, but that menu may have been ahead of its time in Glen Ellen, so the gaucho eventually begat the fig café—it’s current incarnation as an intimate, “local-centric” bistro with an avid following and the added attraction of a free-corkage policy.
Now Sondra was shepherding two restaurants and working 16-hour days in Sonoma while commuting from her home on Adobe Canyon Road outside Kenwood. To save commute time, she began living in a third-floor room in the hotel above the restaurant.
The new location was perfect—“I loved it, it was heirloom”—and the fig formula clearly worked. French-influenced, farm-fresh cuisine and a wine list still relentlessly Rhône-centric but now appealing to a public palate more sophisticated about those varietals. And because of her restaurants’ burgeoning popularity, Sondra was moving a lot of wine, so much, in fact, that winemakers began taking notice.
“I love when winemakers tell me thanks because our guests try their wines and then go to the winery to buy some,” she says. “At first we were trying to get people to buy wine they’ve never heard of, and there weren’t enough Rhône wines to fill the list. Now we’ve had winemakers plant and grow wines just to be put on our list.”
In fact, the Rhône revolution has gained so much traction that when Sonoma celebrity sommelier Chris Sawyer held a recent Rhône tasting for people who make or sell that wine, among them Sondra, there wasn’t an empty seat at the 30-foot-long cellar table at Don Sebastiani’s elegant Fourth Street villa.
And this June, Sondra was honored by the Rhone Rangers, an organization of 150 wineries dedicated to making Rhône varietal wines. The Rangers gave her their fifth annual Lifetime Achievement Award, the first restaurateur to be so honored.
“Sondra is a true pioneer,” says Rhone Rangers board member Stuart Montgomery. “Normally we give this award to winemakers or sommeliers, but this is the first time we’ve given this honor to a chef or restaurateur. Her passion for educating wine lovers about these sometimes overlooked but incredibly versatile wines is undeniable, and she was doing it decades before Rhônes became trendy.”
At first blush Sondra Bernstein is the least likely candidate for Empire Builder of the Year. There is little about her that suggests corporate ambition. And yet. After the new girl & the fig was successfully ensconced in Sonoma, the site did so well Sondra and John were emboldened to replicate the formula in Petaluma, where they opened a second girl & the fig in the old River House, an area for which the city had major development plans. Those plans were unpredictably delayed, which parked a cloud over the fig, and after 15 months of poor performance they pulled the plug.
But one flop did not a pattern make.
Soon afterward the deli-wine-shop-vacation-cabin facility on the far east edge of town, now known as Sonoma’s Best, became available and Sondra got the lease. She named it the fig pantry and showcased FigFood, the line of culinary products she and John developed. She loved the location and the facility, but late one night someone in a large SUV drove at considerable speed straight up Eighth Street East, ran the stop sign at East Napa Street and plowed all the way into the pantry’s kitchen before backing out again and fleeing the scene, leaving a bumper with license plate behind.
The four-month delay in reconstruction proved too daunting and she got out of the lease.
Then when the General’s Daughter, a Spain Street restaurant in the Victorian mansion once owned by Mariano Vallejo’s daughter, became available at a bargain price, Sondra bought it too and renamed the restaurant “Estate.” That restaurant closed in 2012 when the property owners sold the building.
Along the way she did her first cookbook, the girl & the fig cookbook (2004), and her second, Plats du Jour, in 2011, with photos by Valley of the Moon magazine photographer Steven Krause. She expanded her fig products to include condiments, sauces, lotions, soaps, lather, aprons, shirts, mugs, candles, cutting boards, towels and art, and started a line of artisan cheese and charcuterie platters for pickup or delivery.
She and John also developed a catering business for weddings, celebrations and corporate events. To service that business and expand their range of services, in 2012 they opened Suite D, a warehouse space on Eighth Street East with a variety of interchangeable design elements so that event clients can create a wide range of effects with variable lighting, wall and ceiling decor and dining layouts. It comes with a stage and room for musicians to perform.
By now you may be exhausted by the list, but there’s more. Two years ago, during a team-building event, the whole fig staff divided into groups with the challenge of coming up with new business ideas. When the dust settled, the idea with the most votes was a food truck, and that’s how the figrig was born. It wasn’t a cheap decision. “The truck was $95,000,” Sondra says. “There’s a company that makes them, but I did it on a lease. I look at it as rent.”
Meanwhile, she began collaborating with the owners of the Fat Pilgrim, an antique and curiosity store on lower Broadway, to occupy part of the space with a dedicated wine tasting and food facility she calls the “Rhône Room.”
And as if that were not enough, at the end of June, Sondra and John took over one of Sonoma’s most iconic saloons, Murphy’s Irish Pub. A revered watering hole requires a light touch from new owners, and Sondra says she gets it.
“They approached us to come in to see how we can make it better,” she explains. “I don’t think we should do anything until we fix the basics. If it’s a good model and can make money, why change anything?”
The food, she says, will be “very, very simple. And there are over 100 whiskeys right now, so I think it will be fun to have whiskey dinners there.” And, she promises, “There will still be Trivia Night.”
Normally, that would be enough for one lifetime, but Sondra doesn’t do normal. So she is now exercising her philanthropic instincts with creation of the Fig Foundation, a vehicle for investing in other people’s entrepreneurial dreams.
“I feel really grateful I was given a chance to have my own business,” she says. “I want to help other people starting out. It can involve food as farming, food trucks, anything in my world. It could even be a scholarship to a school. The first grant should be made in the next couple months, which will be awesome.”
Grants won’t be for any set amount, she says, but are likely to range between $2,000 and $20,000.
All of this adds up to a rather remarkable record of success, with a few notable bumps in the road. So you’re compelled to ask, what’s the secret?
Ask John Toulze and the answer is short and sweet. “There is no secret. The restaurant business is not complicated. It’s organized chaos. There are no shortcuts. You just have to work hard every day.”
Sondra goes further. Part of the answer, she says, is good staff, and the key ingredients are “intention, hunger and charisma. That’s more important than knowledge,” she insists. “I’ll take curious over smart any day of the week.”
New staff who will be working with the public have to be interviewed twice. If they’re hired, there’s an employee manual that takes five or six days to know, and a quiz every month. “Our guests could go anywhere,” she says. “There are 30 or 40 restaurants in town. The bottom line is, we care that they’re here. We have to be in the moment, be present when we’re taking care of our guests. It’s a hard job.”
The other side of Sondra Bernstein’s life is far outside the fig. “I like to travel, I like to see things. It fills me. I travel hard and I work hard. I am very in the moment.”
In the past year she has been to Cuba, the Rhône regions of France, Alaska, Miami, New Orleans, and on a health retreat in Carlsbad.
Where she’ll go next year is up for review, but it’s an utterly safe bet she’ll come back. She always does. She has to. There’s just so much to do.