Crêperie Chez Solange, a French bistro in Wikiup, is closing its doors for good Oct. 30. But owner and operator Philippe Colasse, a chef of 30 years, isn’t closing his latest pursuit because of a lack of customers. Rather, he, like many restaurant owners in Sonoma County, can’t find enough staff to run his business.
Colasse opened Crêperie Chez Solange, located in the Molsberry Market shopping center off Old Redwood Highway, in January 2020, just months before the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns would disrupt restaurants and other businesses around the globe.
Prior to moving to Sonoma County 10 years ago, the French-born Colasse had worked in Michelin Star restaurants in France and Las Vegas, and as a personal chef for celebrities in Los Angeles, he said. In Sonoma County, he opened the Walter Hansel Wine Bistro on Guerneville Road, and has headed winery kitchens and catering businesses prior to opening Crêperie Chez Solange.
Just before the coronavirus pandemic, Colasse said he had no problem finding staff for his popular restaurant.
“I had eight employees, full or part time. We were open six days a week. I had no trouble,” Colasse said. “Every time I was putting up an ad, I would have a dozen applicants. It was just picking the right candidate and training them. It was no problem at that time.”
After adapting what was meant to be a dine-in bistro-style French restaurant into a take-out only model, as all restaurateurs hoping to stay open through COVID had to do, Colasse went down to three staff members — two employees and himself.
The trouble with staffing began upon reopening, which, with two employees, he was able to do five days per week, one day less than his initial plans prior to the pandemic. With indoor dining at reduced capacity, Colasse was even able to handle demand when his staff dropped to one employee.
“We were able to manage it. One person had to leave, so I was down to one person when we were supposed to do outdoor and indoor dining,” Colasse said.
But after his final employee returned to college in San Francisco seven months ago, Colasse hasn’t been able to find a single person to work alongside him at Crêperie Chez Solange, despite posting on various employment websites and telling his customer base of his woes.
“It’s been around seven or eight months, and I haven’t had one applicant,” Colasse said.
Colasse’s problem isn’t unique in Sonoma County, where the shortage of hospitality workers during and following the pandemic has caused many restaurants to suffer or close due to lack of staffing.
According to a survey of businesses conducted by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board this year, 42% of respondents had experienced hiring difficulties, and 78% of respondents were “very concerned about housing and living costs for their employees.”
The hospitality industry in particular has been hit hard with understaffing, as workers, unable to work in restaurants during much of the pandemic, left the industry for one reason or another. Some have chosen to stay on public benefits, others have sought retraining in other industries such as the construction trades, and some have moved out of the area.
Colasse credits his inability to find staff to two things: workers are either on public benefits as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, or else have chosen to leave the restaurant industry, which can be highly stressful, in favor of other industries.
“It’s not only the Crêperie, it’s everything in the hospitality industry,” Colasse said. “In 30 years, I’ve never had such trouble. Basically, this all started about seven months ago. Even in 2020, when everything was shut down, if I was looking for part-time workers, I had responses. But then after that it didn’t happen. I’m not the only one — for everybody it’s the same thing. It’s the story of everyone in the food industry in this county.”
Since his final employee departed, Colasse has been running the restaurant all by himself. That means conducting all business tasks, sourcing and preparing all ingredients prior to service and interfacing with customers while cooking everything he sells.
On the mid-October Wednesday morning of a scheduled interview with SoCoNews, Colasse was halfway through carrying tables and chairs out to set up the patio when a DoorDash delivery driver arrived. Hopping behind the counter, Colasse began cooking all the ingredients he had prepped entirely by himself, folding them into crêpes and galettes. A mother with an infant in a stroller had waited over five minutes before Colasse was able to ask for her order. The interview was rescheduled as he finished the DoorDash order, and two more customers walked in.
Colasse said he made the decision to close his doors because, even though he has worked in extremely demanding restaurants in settings far higher-end than a Wikiup shopping center, the workload was intolerable for one person.
“I know what long hours are, but when you’re by yourself and don’t have a team with you, it’s too hard,” Colasse said.
One of the hardest things for him has been to turn away customers, some of whom he said come from as far as San Rafael to eat his crêpes and other French cuisine. On a recent Saturday, Colasse said he turned away about 40 people because he didn’t have the capacity to serve them. At least, he said, customers have been understanding, and many are hopping at the final chance to dine at Crêperie Chez Solange.
“Customers have been responding very well — they’re compassionate about it,” Colasse said. “That’s what makes me the saddest. I have a lot of customers that are incredible. They are loyal. When you like serving and preparing food, it’s sad to have to let them go because I cannot keep doing it all on my own.”