Lydia’s Sunflower Center is closing

It is with some sadness that I note the closing of Lydia’s Sunflower Center in Petaluma. Its final day will be September 20. Fortunately, “Lydia’s Express, a Sebastopol restaurant Kindheart owns separately with a partner, will remain open.”[1] Its name notwithstanding, the Sebastopol restaurant is a real sit-down establishment, a break from Linda Kindheart’s earlier establishments, in Fairfax and Petaluma, where customers ordered at the counter, and then were either called to fetch their meals (in Fairfax) or brought their meals (in Petaluma) after sitting down.

To my knowledge, the Fairfax location remains closed. Last I saw, it was undergoing what seemed to be extensive renovation. A new vegan restaurant under apparently different ownership is promised. I was surprised, though, when Kindheart closed it as it seemed to me to have been a successful operation.

Likewise, I was surprised at her decision to open in an industrial park in north Petaluma. As it turned out, the Sunflower Center was much more spacious, and from what I can see, attracted much more business than I would have expected at such a location.

For me, Petaluma is mostly a crossroads and a town I drive through on the way to other locations. Historically, it was known for its egg and dairy operations. The Rancho slaughterhouse, closed for food safety violations, also operated there.[2] It has a small downtown that yuppies probably like, but it’s just not the sort of place I would expect a vegan restaurant to to do well in.

Further, in an industrial park well to the north of the main part of town, it was not in a location tourists would stumble upon. The location, in my view, made much more sense for its logistical value—she runs a commercial kitchen that sells to Whole Foods, Community Market, and other health-oriented grocers all around the Bay Area—than for any retail value. The area was by no means grimy, but the ambiance was hardly what I would want for a date.

But often when I went into Sunflower Center, it was busy. It seemed prosperous. Even in the bottom floor of an otherwise nondescript office building. So I just figured I was wrong.

After hearing of the coming closure, Santa Rosa business owner Sue Libby said she felt compelled to visit Kindheart. Libby, owner of Baraka Sinus Products, a maker of neti pots, said that Kindheart had accomplished something rare among women business owners.

“Eighty-five employees is pretty impressive, what she’s done on a shoestring,” Libby said.[3]

For her part, Kindheart blames her lack of business experience.

Despite years of hard work, the businesses proved unsustainable, owner Linda Kindheart said Wednesday. That was partly due to not knowing enough about making a growing company thrive. “I didn’t learn the business world.”[4]

That’s the kind of explanation that isn’t really an explanation. Clearly she thinks either that she did something (or a multitude of things) wrong or that she failed to do something (or a multitude of things) right. We still don’t know what those things are.

The economy goes unmentioned in the Press Democrat article reporting the closure.[5] But the news here still isn’t good, as far too many of the jobs created since the recession have been low-wage or temporary jobs, especially for the young, especially for college graduates with student loans to pay. Kindheart has been climbing a hill here, too.

In terms of pricing, Lydia’s restaurants are a step up from, say, Slice of Life, where I eat more often. Slice of Life is vegetarian, but all one needs to do is substitute soy cheese for the dairy cheese, and then the food is vegan. The menu at Slice of Life consists largely of comfort food which, given my apparently interminable unemployment, is badly needed sustenance for my soul.

The truism that the restaurant business is a tough one is no less true for vegan restaurants. On my drives between Eureka and Sebastopol, Soul Sisters in Ukiah seems to be operating on a much more frayed shoestring than Lydia’s restaurants were (but do stop by for a meal that will satisfy you for most of the rest of the day).  Humboldt Healthy Foods in Fortuna, closing at 4 p.m., an hour before people might start looking for dinner, seems to me to be trying to go out of business.

By contrast, Sunflower Center was, if memory serves, open until 10 p.m. Kindheart might lack business acumen, but there’s a lot she got right.

  1. [1]Robert Digitale, “Petaluma vegetarian food maker scaling back operations,” Santa Rosa Press Democrat, September 3, 2014, http://www.pressdemocrat.com/business/2663920-181/petaluma-vegetarian-food-maker-scaling
  2. [2]See David Benfell, “As if they voluntarily accept their fate,” So, I’m Vegan. Now, What?, March 29, 2014, https://vegan.parts-unknown.org/?p=156
  3. [3]Robert Digitale, “Petaluma vegetarian food maker scaling back operations,” Santa Rosa Press Democrat, September 3, 2014, http://www.pressdemocrat.com/business/2663920-181/petaluma-vegetarian-food-maker-scaling
  4. [4]Robert Digitale, “Petaluma vegetarian food maker scaling back operations,” Santa Rosa Press Democrat, September 3, 2014, http://www.pressdemocrat.com/business/2663920-181/petaluma-vegetarian-food-maker-scaling
  5. [5]Robert Digitale, “Petaluma vegetarian food maker scaling back operations,” Santa Rosa Press Democrat, September 3, 2014, http://www.pressdemocrat.com/business/2663920-181/petaluma-vegetarian-food-maker-scaling

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