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Equal parts vision + toil: peasants FEAST restaurant celebrates six weeks in business

Equal parts vision + toil: peasants FEAST restaurant celebrates six weeks in business

From the May 15 recap: Solvang news you may have missed this week series

A typical day for Michael and Sarah Cherney, owners of downtown Solvang eatery peasants FEAST, looks a lot different than what the couple had envisioned five months ago when they entered negotiations to lease space 487 Atterdag Road.

"We were mentally destroyed after the announcement," Michael remembered, referring to Gov. Newsom's March 15 call for the closure of non-essential businesses like their 15-day-old restaurant. "We were asking ourselves, 'what are we going to do?'"

Against the trusted advice of restaurateurs in the area and despite their landlord Aaron Petersen waiving a contractual agreement requiring them to open within 30 days, Michael and Sarah made the decision to press on with their initial April 1 soft launch.

And they haven't looked back.

When Sarah, general manager, isn't buzzing around the 7,000-square-foot lot single-handedly managing all front-of-the-house tasks centered around taking and delivering customer pickup orders, the one-time elementary school teacher is simultaneously homeschooling the couple's two children Sabian, 13, and Reina, 11, at the family's restaurant.

And Michael, executive chef, who calls 14-hours days, six-days-a-week, a normal week, can be found foraging the Solvang farmers market and making his daily rounds to nearby Finley Farms for fresh, local produce and herbs that constitute his soupe du jour, or hustling in the kitchen, consumed by making a lasting impression on his customers. 

"It totally matters to me," Michael said, referring to the brown to-go boxes in which he's forced to present his fine culinary works. "Our food belongs on nice plates not in a to-go box, sitting there steaming on a 10-minute ride home."  

But despite having to ride the unpredictable wave of the new COVID-19 era, Michael says he's optimistic.

"We're very adaptive people," he said, detailing how decisions to reallocate money to important areas like fine-tuning their to-go model and keeping their two sous chefs employed, have halted unnecessary projects meant to maximize the seated customers' experience. "We still have thousands of dollars of wrapped plates waiting to be used." 

The couple has more than 30 combined years of hospitality experience between the two of them, having worked at high-end international/national restaurants and a number of well-known Central Coast eateries including the now permanently-closed Sides Hardware and Shoes in Los Olivos – where they met.

They also started a "pop-up" catering company peasants FEAST in 2019, which allowed them to test recipes and culinary concepts throughout the wine region, but the Cherneys could not have prepared themselves for the unprecedented times they are now facing.

Michael says that although the restaurant sold out of their Atterdag Smash Burger and Solvang Hot Chicken sandwich menu items the first week of opening, business has been overall hit-or-miss, making the task of tracking weekly sales to gauge product volume to be purchased, a moving target.

"It's been a wild ride, to say the least," Michael said, reflecting on the six weeks since launching. "Last week was total confusion: we had our busiest day and our slowest day. I think the general public is so confused as to what they can and cannot do." 

On May 12, Newsom outlined guidelines for reopening in-room dining at restaurants statewide, however, due to Santa Barbara County's case numbers, the second phase which includes the Cherney's full sit-down restaurant concept, will be difficult if not impossible for the county to meet in the near future.

In the meantime, Michael says their commitment to navigating uncharted waters is tethered by his 15-year dream of owning a restaurant.

"A lot of locals have been coming here over the last month," Michael said, noting that orders as far away as Carpinteria have been placed and scores of gift cards have been purchased by family and community members. "I cannot say how grateful we are – even though opening a restaurant during this time is completely nuts."

Lisa André covers Valley Life for Santa Ynez Valley News. 

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