Santa Barbara restaurant community hit hard by ongoing fire David McNew/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Santa Barbara restaurant community hit hard by ongoing fire

Heavy smoke and ash has forced closures and devastated business

Santa Barbara, Calif., restaurant operators were hoping for a return to business as the cloud of smoke and ash that choked the city began to lift somewhat on Wednesday.

In its third week, the massive Thomas wildfire that began in neighboring Ventura County continued to rage, but was about 60 percent contained. Fire officials, however, issued a warning that dangerous winds were expected to pick up again Wednesday evening.

The wind-driven fire is the second largest in California history, with more than 270,000 acres scorched — an area roughly 19 times the size of Manhattan, according to reports.

The fire has killed two people, including a firefighter, and destroyed 765 single-family homes, according to the Los Angeles Times.

David McNew/Getty Images News/Getty Images

There were no reports of restaurants damaged in the Santa Barbara area, but operators across the city were forced to close temporarily over the past week. Some were in evacuation areas and others feared for their workers, given the heavy smoke and ash that blanketed the city over the past week.

Sherry Villanueva, managing partner of the multiconcept group Acme Hospitality in Santa Barbara, was evacuated from her home for 12 days. She said she returned to find firefighters had saved her house, although the property next door was lost, along with other homes in her neighborhood.

Acme’s six businesses, including the restaurants Loquita, Lucky Penny, The Lark, Les Marchands, along with Helena Avenue Bakery and a wine collective, were not in the line of fire. But all of the outlets closed for about four days when the smoke and ash were at its worst, she said.

“Besides just the personal impact and trying to deal with about 280 employees, trying to help them personally and individually because they have children and pets, the air quality was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It was horrible,” she said. “We felt the air quality conditions were not safe.

“All of our restaurants have about 50 percent of seating outdoors, but we closed all our patios. We issued masks to all employees so they could come to work safely, and we kept everyone inside and bundled up,” Villanueva said. “We knew we’d lose money, but we tried to stay open to help the employees who needed the work. Most are hourly and they can’t afford not to work.”

Although the holiday season is typically one of the busiest times of the year for Santa Barbara restaurants, Villanueva said her business has been hit hard.

“We had two buyouts cancel, as well as 15 private events, which is really, really devastating,” she said. “No one is in a celebratory mood.”

Trevor Large, an attorney and president of the board for Hospitality Santa Barbara, an association of nearly 200 restaurants, hotels and related businesses, said the loss of business has been felt across the region.

“The reality was that for several days or a week, this became almost a ghost town because you didn’t want to or couldn’t be outside,” he said. “We’re dealing with the economic impact of essentially a town that has been shut down by smoke, ash and evacuations.”

Large said restaurant operators he had spoken with closed for between four and seven days, and business was down 5 percent to 10 percent.

“Either people aren’t going out to eat because of the smoke, or they left town entirely,” he said. “There’s this hunker down mentality.”

But by Wednesday, air conditions had improved and residents were venturing out again. Large said he hoped to see a rush to shops and restaurants this weekend if firefighters continued to regain control.

Meanwhile, restaurants like those operated by Villanueva pledged to feed firefighters and serve as community gathering spots for as long as it took.

“We’re very, very grateful,” she said. “When we left, there was a fire engine parked in our driveway and they said, ‘We got you.’ Any fire department personnel get free lunch or dinner at my restaurants. Talk about local heroes.”

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected] 

Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout

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