Imagine a sun-drenched California vineyard. Row upon row of leafy green vines fill the undulating hills of the Central Coast landscape. But as you reach the center of Halter Ranch’s 281-acre vineyards, a monster appears. It’s not, however, a “Game of Thrones” dragon breathing fire, but rather the Ancestry Tree which dates from the same War of the Roses time frame. The gargantuan iron oak seems impossibly broad. Indeed, it is the world’s largest Coast Live Oak. The multiple gnarled trunks rise, but the branches are so long that they bend earthbound again creating a natural pergola which filters the sunlight to dapple the ground like a romantic fairyland.
It’s here, drunk with love, and perhaps some wonderful Paso Robles meritage blend, that Zach Feinstein proposed to Christine Padilla, his long time business partner. For a couple in their early 30s, they’ve had extraordinary success. In six short years, they’ve together developed a diverse portfolio of four successful restaurant concepts in northern Pinellas through savvy and hard work: Dunedin’s Black Pearl, The Living Room, Sonder Social Club, and Iron Oak BBQ just north in Palm Harbor.
The couple honed their management skills overseeing 1000-plus Burger King corporate franchises across the globe, but really had an interest in fine dining. Zach is quick to add that “in the macho world of restaurants, Christina doesn’t always get full credit for being an owner.”
Nine months ago they welcomed a daughter, Sofia Rose, into the family. On March 10 they moved into an expansive new home as a reward for their labors. And on March 16, COVID-19 closed their restaurant empire down.
“It was terrifying,” Zach said. Christina chimes in that her mother is “very high risk.” But they acted quickly “the day that everything was available for emergency disaster loans . . . we all sat down and we just hammered through the applications” and they were granted payroll protection plus emergency bridge and disaster loans. Still, there was a lot of uncertainty about when they were going to be able to open and re-employ their staff of 110 people in northern Pinellas.
“We signed up for Uber Eats and everything under the sun” in order to get The Living Room and Iron Oak open. They got online ordering booted up and opened Iron Oak first in the middle of April. “Business was more surprising than we thought” However, Christina adds, “it has been a challenge to reinvent yourself; we don’t know when it will be the same again“
When you’ve got three successful restaurants all within walking distance of each other, it’s daunting to realize that “there’s not enough traffic in downtown (Dunedin) when there’s nothing going on to support a healthy ‘to-go’ business.”
The couple is “absolutely resolute to make sure that we’re following the CDC guidelines. Making our employees feel safe is really important. We do require our entire company to wear masks at all times.”
At The Living Room they did to-go cocktails which has been “kind of a neat change.” Christina adds with a laugh that it’s “something I hope doesn’t go away.” They were operating Sonder’s drinks’ program out of The Living Room plus some Black Pearl favorites as well.
Because of their extensive outdoor space, they were able to meet the 25% limit and still be profitable. “We have a very nice patio (at The Living Room) so that’s been very good for us. Iron Oak is basically just a giant patio. It’s one of the few places in northern Pinellas where you can spend your entire night outdoors undercover.”
The Black Pearl, however, doesn’t work at 25% capacity (much like The Restorative) so they took the opportunity to make it easier to clean and more sanitary but also to give it “the facelift that it deserved.” Cristina’s keen design eye now has their flagship looking like a Michelin star. The Black Pearl, which is a 42-seat jewel, reopened seating just 20 diners at a time, but it can essentially do three seatings. Unlike their other more casual restaurants which rely on walk-ins, Christina adds that “we know where they’ll be seated, so we can control the social distancing.”
On top of density limitations, the cost of goods has increased. Best of the Bay-winning Chef Chris Artrip curates all of the menus and has had to look at pasta and vegetarian dishes because the beef market has gone crazy.
“It’s been really challenging to see this problem from all angles,” Christina said. Artrip is revisiting menus and talking to vendors every single day to make sure that they’re profitable.
“Chris is like a brother; he has no ego,” Christina glows. “He’s one of the most adaptable persons in this whole situation.”
“We’re trying to do the best we can do to make sure we have a safe environment for our staff and our guests,” Zach says. “As long as we serve great food and we innovate in the way we deliver that food to tables, we’ll provide great service.”
Weekdays at The Living Room are still a little slow, but weekends are on an hour wait. “We have a paging system so people can walk around downtown Dunedin; we don’t want them congregating.”
Christina is justly proud of Sonder’s creative partnership born of limited space inside.
“We teamed up with a couple of adjacent boutique shops on Douglas Avenue to have tables outside. It’s been an awesome collaboration,” she explained.
“I think we’re gonna be alright, but we’re not out of the woods yet,” Zach sighs. “The faster a vaccine becomes available, the better.”
Still, Zach said, 100% of staff is back at work even though some servers were passing out flyers while others were painting.
“We just wanted to get money in their pockets,” he explained.
As it turns out, Halter Ranch’s expansive iron oak is the perfect metaphor for the Feinsteins’ business. Big ideas are always percolating. Their latest project is an inspiring innovation that’s still in its inchoate stage, so they’re not quite ready to share details. But, like the tree, it’s big, bold and reaching for the sky. Stay tuned.
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