Estero Café, Roadside Joint in Small Town, Draws Large, Hungry Crowds – J.
Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.
The hamlet of Valley Ford in Sonoma County may not seem like a very Jewish place. But a popular cafe in the small town (pop. 147) wears its Jewish identity on its sleeve.
Estero Café, located on Highway 1 and frequented by both regulars and passers-by, has a mezuzah on its door jamb, and if co-owner Samantha Ramey is working on the floor, diners will notice the Magen David she’s wearing. , one made by his mother, in fact.
Estero offers a dinner-style menu, which Ramey herself compares to Denny’s, with breakfast and lunch classics. But there is a major difference in the supply. Organic eggs come from Coastal Hill Farms. The meat for his burgers comes from across the way at Stemple Creek Ranch (which we wrote about in 2019). The cheese comes from Valley Ford Cheese Co., next door. The ice cream for its milkshakes comes from Straus Dairy. Its products are grown on nearby farms. Even the fries are fried in Stemple Creek Ranch beef tallow, rather than mass-produced oil.
“We make everything from scratch, all with sustainability and health in mind for our bodies,” said Ramey, 36, who, along with her chef husband, owns Estero and the Santa Rosa Americana restaurant.
“Yes, we sell cookies and gravy. It’s not vegan or raw, healthy food, but we make a sauce from our homemade bone broth and fresh herbs, with organic milk and cream. That’s what’s so unique about it.
Ramey grew up in Long Island, NY, where his father and his father before him owned a meat company, Wehan Foods. Her grandfather at one point operated as many as seven restaurants, she said, spread across Manhattan and Queens. He died young, at which point his father sold the restaurants and kept the meat business, which in its early days was kosher.
We manufacture everything from scratch, all with sustainability and health in mind for our bodies.
The meat truck was often in her family’s driveway, she said, and her father sometimes drove it to pick her up from school.
Ramey has always loved and attracted restaurants, perhaps because the industry is in his blood. “I worked there all through high school and college, and worked every weekend while in college,” she said. “But even though I really enjoyed being there, I didn’t think it would be my career as an adult.”
She came West to attend San Diego State University and had her first exposure to the farm-to-table concept. She met her husband, Ryan Ramey, when she was applying for a job at a restaurant where he was the chef (though she didn’t end up working there). Once together, he would tell her about Sonoma County, where he grew up in Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park, but her only association with the area was the wines she sold as a waiter.
They moved to Valley Ford in 2010 and started serving catering and breakfast at Bodega Bay Farmers Market. (Ramey helped start the market and was its volunteer coordinator.) In 2014, they opened Estero Café.
With its location en route to the coast, directly opposite a distinctive water tower, the cafe is always full on weekends, often with a wait. It can accommodate 32 people inside and 25 on the terrace.
“This place has been amazing for us. I adore him, and this is my first child,” she said (she has since given birth to two human children). “But that was never enough for us to live on, and we were always looking for something in town too.”
“In town” means Santa Rosa, 27 km away. 2018 and 2019 were good enough for the cafe that they were able to achieve their long-held dream of expanding their business and opening Americana in February 2020. But then of course Covid hit and they had to shut down for a while.
There were other difficult times during this time as Ramey was now a mother of two, with daughter Ivy, now almost 5, and son Danny, now 2.
“I commit to working 50 hours a week, I’ve never had a problem with that. But without childcare, it’s almost impossible to do,” she said.
Things are mostly on track and Americana is doing well. The menu is similar to Estero, but in Santa Rosa they also offer dinner service on Friday and Saturday nights. Although there are no explicitly Jewish dishes on the menu, Ramey said they make their own pickles and sauerkraut and cure their own lox. (There are no mezuzahs at Americana yet, but there will be, Ramey promised).
She finds it amusing that running two restaurants with popular breakfast menus means selling a ton of pork products in the form of bacon and sausage. But she makes it work.
“Easter Sunday, I had been at work all day, selling bacon and cheeseburgers, and then I went home and did my seder,” she said. “That’s the kind of Jew I am.”