Thursday, August 6, 2020
Aug. 6, 2020

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Restaurant owners persisting through pandemic

Couples that own La Sorrentina, Kray’s Coffee, Acorn & The Oak keep dreams alive despite virus

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Chef Daisuke Matsumoto barely opened La Sorrentina before the pandemic shutdown hit.
Chef Daisuke Matsumoto barely opened La Sorrentina before the pandemic shutdown hit. (Contributed by La Sorrentina) Photo Gallery

Launching a restaurant right now feels like playing a dystopian Food Network game called “Pandemic Restaurant Opening,” in which the rules constantly change and things that you need, like takeout containers or bacon, suddenly disappear. Despite these complications, several couples have recently opened food businesses in Clark County.

Svetlana Kray dreamed of opening a bakery and coffee shop since she was in middle school. Years ago, on her first date with her now husband, Konstantin Kray, Svetlana shared this vision with him. The Krays recently traveled through Europe — France, Italy, Switzerland — searching for recipes and designs for their cafe and bakery, Kray’s Coffee. They wanted a simple and elegant space where customers could drink great coffee and eat Svetlana’s fresh baked pastries.

Daisuke Matsumoto and Amy Hernandez Matsumoto imagined opening a restaurant for 16 years. They met in Daisuke’s native Japan where he grew up eating Italian food at his father’s acclaimed restaurant, Caruso. When Daisuke met Amy, he was forced to choose between her and taking over his father’s restaurant. He chose Amy. They moved back to her home state of Washington and set about pursuing Daisuke’s dream of opening a restaurant featuring southern Italian cuisine.

Janessa and Chuck Stoltz moved here from Chicago. Janessa is a florist. Chuck owned a restaurant in Dubuque, Iowa. When they found the 83-year-old Lakeside Chalet on Lacamas Lake, they knew it was the perfect spot for Acorn & The Oak, a flower shop and retro Midwestern supper club.

These couples all began to realize their dreams just as the pandemic shut them down. Kray’s Coffee opened to customers for a month. La Sorrentina opened for one day. The Stoltzes spent a year gutting and renovating the Camas chalet to turn it into a swanky supper club and bright flower shop but it wasn’t ready by the time stay-home orders closed restaurants.

Handling the unexpected

Gracefully handling a variety of changes has helped these businesses continue.

The cafe that Konstantin Kray, a flooring expert and general contractor, built for his wife couldn’t be filled with customers. The Krays quickly shifted to takeout by snatching up to-go containers, paper coffee cups and gloves. The first two weeks after they reopened on March 17 were slow. They bought eight signs to put around the area to lure customers. The businesses nearby in the Vancouver Plaza complex — Verizon, Xfinity, and Vancouver Clinic — still had onsite employees who bought coffee and baked goods for themselves and their co-workers.

“Baking is a big deal,” Svetlana Kray said. “If we just had coffee, we wouldn’t still be in business.”

La Sorrentina, after only one dinner service, had to transform into a takeout-only business — a tricky proposition for a restaurant focused on wood-fired pizzas and delicate pastas that were meant to be served right as they leave the kitchen. In addition, Daisuke Matsumoto’s teacher from Italy, Master Chef Biagio Longo, flew in to train the staff. The Matsumotos had to find a way for Longo, who had quadruple bypass surgery three years ago, to return to Italy. They closed the restaurant to focus on getting him home safely.

La Sorrentina was closed for months. Hernandez Matsumoto wasn’t certain how to serve guests in the restaurant safely. One day, a customer wrote a poem to the Matsumotos about how much their food meant to him. Hernandez Matsumoto, who had been reluctant to reopen, took this as a sign and told her husband that it was time.

“If this guy is this dedicated then other people are going to support us as well,” she said.

At Acorn & The Oak, the Stoltzes hired Chef David Haight, who moved from Seattle right as Gov. Jay Inslee’s emergency orders shut everything down. Haight said real estate agents weren’t showing apartments so he couldn’t find a place to live. He moved in with the Stoltzes and the group spent time poring over Julia Child and Jacques Pepin cookbooks from the 1960s and ’70s to find the right updated supper club fare for their menu. They also worked on getting the kitchen ready and obtaining necessary approvals from the county health department.

Acorn & The Oak’s crew decided to open for takeout dinners and flowers for Mother’s Day. Both businesses were wildly popular.

“This Mother’s Day was big for floral. It’s the busiest I’ve ever seen,” Janessa Stoltz said.

The week before Mother’s Day, the restaurant still didn’t have a kitchen. On Tuesday, the gas was set up and by Thursday the stove was working.

Despite all this, Haight experimented with recipes that would be good for takeout. Instead of just placing an order for supplies, as chefs do under normal circumstances, Haight had to call several places to get the things he needed for the kitchen. Food purveyors had supply issues. For two weeks, there wasn’t any bacon. Then jarred cherries for cocktails became hard to find.

The restaurant finally opened for dinner service July 1. It wasn’t what Janessa Stoltz had envisioned during the year she spent renovating the space and the months of making final touches and finalizing the menus.

“That was tough for me because we were building this place for so long. I pictured a big grand opening, but we can’t do it,” Stoltz said.

Positive attitude

Deciding to stay in this business given the constantly changing circumstances and uncertainty requires great mental strength, restaurant owners said.

“Happiness is when you do something you love and get paid,” Konstantin Kray said. His wife, who has dreamed of this business since she was a young girl, feels that this business is her destiny.

“If we get this business, it’s meant to be from God,” Svetlana Kray said.

“It’s exhausting, but we’re doing what we love,” Amy Hernandez Matsumoto said of La Sorrentina.

And the team at Acorn & The Oak keep each other going.

“We joke that we’re at the bottom of this big hole,” Janessa Stoltz said, “and we’re digging our way out.”

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