Downtown Mary’s Pizza exit reflects Santa Rosa restaurants’ struggles as pandemic lingers and financial hardship mounts

The abrupt weekend closure of two Mary’s Pizza Shack restaurants in Sonoma County marked the latest blow to a pandemic-shattered local dining scene and, for downtown Santa Rosa and Sebastopol, the departure from flagship restaurants.

The closures come as local restaurant owners report continuing struggles with labor shortages, rising rents, supply issues and spotty business.

Some downtown Santa Rosa landlords saw Mary’s departure as another unwanted sign of continued challenges ahead.

“Long term, I think the closure will have a negative impact on us,” said Sonu Chandi, president and founder of Chandi Hospitality Group and owner of Beer Baron in downtown Santa Rosa. “These are difficult times for restaurants in many ways. First we were affected by the fires, then the pandemic only made things worse. Housing prices in our community don’t help either.

Mary’s Pizza Shack’s move comes as the family restaurant group grows from a single company operating 14 locations in Sonoma, Napa and Solano counties to 14 individual, family-owned and operated restaurants.

The closures in downtown Santa Rosa and Sevastopol were based on revenue, according to Mary’s Pizza publicist Jacob Perez. The Fourth Street restaurant was closed for three months, between November 2021 and February, due to an order from the health department and a lack of staff.

Since the start of the pandemic, at least 45 restaurants have closed in Sonoma County, citing a series of financial pressures and business decisions.

The Chandi group has not escaped the headwinds. Their downtown Bollywood restaurants, Bibi’s Burgers and Stout Brothers all closed between 2018 and 2020.

To survive, Chandi says her company, which also owns Mountain Mike’s Pizza on Cleveland Avenue in Santa Rosa, had to “get creative” to attract and retain its workforce.

“We have taken many initiatives to support our workers by providing health benefits and career opportunities,” Chandi said.

He added that they are still struggling to compete in today’s market, with Sonoma County’s unemployment rate of 2.6% in April and housing prices at record highs.

Gray Rollins, owner of Belly Left Coast Kitchen in downtown Santa Rosa, used to go to Mary’s Pizza Shack for their “great pizza” and is sad to see them go.

“Mary’s is a staple in the Bay Area, and I will definitely miss them,” Rollins said. “So many mom and pop restaurants are in the same boat right now. People want to get out, but now there’s a new COVID variant.

“We’ve been through so much,” he said. “I think we just have to get over this hump.”

The City of Santa Rosa and downtown businesses tried a host of new things during the early stages of the pandemic to increase foot traffic. This included closing a section of Fourth Street to give restaurants more space to serve customers outdoors.

Rollins was disappointed when the city reopened the 500 block of Fourth Street to automobile traffic. “It was a great place for families walking around downtown, right in the square,” he said.

But he hopes the return of the Wednesday night market will boost nearby businesses.

Peter Rumble, CEO of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber, is also hopeful.

“We are thrilled that there are four new businesses that have opened or are about to open in downtown Santa Rosa,” he says, citing Warike Restobar, Kancha SR, a new pizzeria and a studio of tattoo.

“It is very disappointing to see Mary’s Pizza Shack closing and we are sad to see them go. But we continue to improve the vitality of downtown Santa Rosa and we are pleased with this trajectory,” Rumble said.

Businesses continue to work hard to maintain outdoor seating areas, while the Downtown Action Organization, a group that supports small businesses through the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber, maintains public spaces and keeps storefronts clean.

Special events, including the Wednesday night market, summer movie nights and an upcoming series of concerts, could inject more business into the area, restaurateurs said.

Chandi, a founding member of the Downtown Action Organization, said, “There are a lot of fundamental issues that are making it difficult for the restaurant industry right now.”

Some stem from the deep blow to restaurants after the 2017 fires, a period that saw Sonoma County’s population decline for the first time in its history and a number of established restaurants closed.

The past two years have added to the tension in many ways, Chandi said.

“We can’t just keep throwing money at things. We have to be creative. To attract a workforce, we must focus strongly on creating programs that encourage people to move to Sonoma County and work in the hospitality industry. It’s a very dynamic situation and we need everyone on deck.

You can reach editor Sarah Doyle at 707-521-5478 or [email protected]

David H. Henry