Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 25
Bringing in a new eraGet an exclusive inside look at the Historic Santa Maria Inn's plans to modernize
BY WENDY THIES SELL
There is no argument that the 95-year-old Historic Santa Maria Inn is a beloved community treasure—the city officially declared it a historic landmark in 1985.
The inn enjoyed a golden age in the 1940s and ’50s when heads of state and Hollywood’s heavy hitters would stop over at the elegant hotel while traveling the old El Camino Real between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
It also holds a special place in the hearts of longtime locals.
“If you want to take Grandma out to dinner, where do you go in this town? You go to the Santa Maria Inn, because she loved the Santa Maria Inn, because she loved it growing up, going to Sunday brunch. That portion of our clientele is leaving us. So we need to find a new market and we need to be trendy,” said John Reinacher, the inn’s longtime general manager, a thoughtful, soft-spoken leader.
“If we want to create an interest level with the younger demographics, we’re going to have to change,” Reinacher added. “We weren’t broken before. Don’t get me wrong—it wasn’t broken. It was working; it was profitable. It just needed improvement.”
Since 1999, new owners have invested $10 million to refurbish the English country-style inn on busy Broadway, including a $2 million kitchen renovation.
The hotel also recently ordered 100,000 square feet of new customized carpeting.
Any place you see green carpet, it will be replaced by the end of the year, Reinacher said.
Restaurant table settings will be changed, the centerpieces will likely be updated, and that’s not all.
“We’re going to definitely legitimize the name of the restaurant, which is the Garden Room, so there will be more foliage, more plants, more of a theme in that regard,” he said.
And now staffers are taking extraordinary measures to update the food: In a nearly yearlong undertaking, every menu is getting a facelift, from the Garden Room to the Tap Room.
The new plated Sunday champagne brunch was revealed in June; quite a departure for the inn, which had a popular Sunday buffet for years. The Grand Buffet will return on select holidays.
The world is changing—the dining public wants more refined, flavorful choices in lieu of Vegas-style, all-you-can-eat smorgasbords.
The inn’s redesigned lunch menu was unveiled in late July, and the all-new innovative yet classic dinner menu will debut in early September, followed by upgrades to room service and banquet menus.
“It is an extreme makeover. It should have its own TV show,” said Reinacher with a smile.
He has noticed that Santa Maria’s demographics have evolved greatly in the last decade, meaning the dining public is now more sophisticated, in large part thanks to countless cooking shows on television.
“[They’re] more educated, more conscious of what they’re eating, even in Santa Maria, a meat and potatoes town. I will be the first to admit that we have not kept up with the changes,” he acknowledged.
In the last year, Reinacher said, a good friend “planted a seed,” and an idea took root.
The local attorney told Reinacher he was a huge fan of chef Ryan Gromfin, the extremely talented 32-year-old chef who ran Central City Market at the Santa Maria Town Center until earlier this year. He is now a food and beverage consultant.
Reinacher vividly recalls his friend telling him, “You should talk to Ryan, because I would be coming here every day if your food was good!”
Reinacher wants to hear any feedback, no matter how harsh, but he also stands up for and supports his dedicated employees, like his executive chef Alex Araizaga.
The inn’s chef of more than a decade, Alex Araizaga is a Mexican immigrant who came to California with his father when he was 12 years old.
“It was myself and my dad first, and then after awhile—a couple years later or so—we brought my brother and my mom,” Araizaga said.
He worked his way up to chef from dishwasher. What he lacks in formal culinary training he makes up for with his admirable work ethic.
Growing up in Cuernavaca, Mexico, Araizaga recalls pool party cookouts in his backyard. His parents would barbecue all kinds of fresh seafood for his extended family, who would visit from the coast on weekends. His dad was a good enough cook to land a job at the Santa Maria Hilton, now known as the Radisson.
In 1994, when Araizaga was a junior at Santa Maria High School, he was hired at the Hilton as a weekend dishwasher. Over time, he earned more kitchen responsibilities; his gumption was noticed, and he was frequently promoted. It wasn’t long before he was in charge of the kitchen.
A couple of years later, Araizaga left Santa Maria for a job cooking at the Bacara Resort near Goleta. He stayed on six months, but then his first daughter was born and the commute was tough.
So he returned to Santa Maria, where the Historic Santa Maria Inn’s Reinacher hired him as a sous chef. Araizaga was named executive chef in 2001.
Then, three years ago during a kitchen crisis at the inn, Araizaga stepped up and proved his mettle. Part of the kitchen floor dropped a couple of inches where the stove sat.
“Once we took up the floor, we realized all the support beams not only were rotted, but were not even there in some cases,” Reinacher recalled.
A planned three-month, $750,000 renovation suddenly became an urgent job that would stretch to nearly nine months and cost nearly $2 million dollars.
They had to set up a mobile kitchen and a tented walkway for servers to transport the food to the restaurants and nine banquet halls, protected from the elements.
Araizaga and his staff worked in the tiny, 8-foot by 24-foot temporary kitchen, preparing food for hundreds of people on a weekly basis.
Reinacher said “anybody who would go through 8 ½ months of virtual hell and not have any complaints, and not have any accidents, and be as loyal as possible” deserves his respect.
“He never complained. Not once did he complain! He just said, ‘We can do it,’” Reinacher said of his executive chef.
That year, the inn still did $1.6 million in food and beverage sales, thanks in large part to Araizaga.
“Which is incredible,” Reinacher said. “This is out of an 8-foot by 24-foot kitchen. It’s remarkable! So, yeah, I have a lot of admiration for that guy because of that.”
The inn has a new 3,500-square-foot, state-of-the-art kitchen and a dedicated chef, but Reinacher and company realized there was room for improvement.
“We were stuck. Yes, we were stuck,” Araigaza acknowledged. “We were trying to bring in new clientele, and also bring in new ideas. You know, try to create something new.”
So the inn implemented a rather unorthodox approach.
Enter chef Gromfin.
In April, Reinacher hired him as a consultant to mentor Araizaga and to “work his magic” in the kitchen.
“[Ryan’s] been in different places than I have,” Araizaga said. “He has a more broad vision, let’s put it that way.”
Gromfin has a culinary arts degree from Johnson and Wales University. He sharpened his considerable skills in five-star restaurant kitchens such as The Peninsula Beverly Hills, the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, and Four Seasons Hotel Austin. He came to Santa Maria in 2009, co-creating and running Central City Market for three years.
Gromfin is a stickler for technique and organization, and is wildly creative—all things that the Santa Maria Inn’s general manager hoped would rub off on Araizaga and his 13-member kitchen staff.
“He’s helping me out; pushing me, I guess,” said Araizaga, who is embracing the opportunity to learn.
“Alex has been extraordinarily open and gracious and I know this has probably been a very difficult process for him,” Gromfin replied. “But I think what it came down to was just a fresh set of eyes.”
“It’s difficult when somebody else comes into the kitchen and says, ‘We need to do this,’ or ‘we need to do that,’ or ‘try it like this’ or ‘try it like that,’” Araizaga admitted. “Yeah, it is difficult, but I think we’re past that.”
“They’re having fun,” Reinacher said. “They’re laughing, which is a good sign. And they’re experimenting.”
Gromfin agreed to work at the inn temporarily, for six to nine months, rewriting and revamping the inn’s menus from top to bottom. Both chefs wrote independent menus and then mixed and matched ideas.
“Alex and I bounce ideas off each other, but we write a menu and I go home, I do all the prep lists, I do all the recipes. While Alex has still got to worry about the day-to-day stuff,” Gromfin said.
Thoroughly modern menus
Together the chefs invented new dishes such as: Mad Mac and Cheese, made with linguica sausage, caramelized onions, and jalapenos; Tuna Tataki, with seared ahi, jicama, and orange salad, chili oil, ginger ponzu, and wontons; Crispy Shrimp Burger, a panko-crusted shrimp patty, sesame seed slaw, soy glaze, and wasabi aioli; and Santa Maria Panini, with grilled tri-tip, linguica sausage, caramelized onions, smoked Gouda, and salsa on a garlic bread French roll, which Gromfin believes will be the inn’s signature sandwich.
The chefs also revamped recipes for traditional favorites like Coq au vin, Yucatan-style Shrimp Scampi, the Black and Bleu Burger, and Grown Up Grilled Cheese.
There’s a new dedication to fresh ingredients and locally grown produce.
“We no longer have canned sauces. We no longer have store-bought dressings,” Reinacher revealed. “Everything is pre-made, everything is made in house right now, where possible.”
This summer, the inn’s food and beverage managers attended numerous meetings and tasted countless new dishes created by Gromfin and Araizaga, both of whom brought something different to the table.
As the Sun’s food and wine columnist, I was invited to try the new entree finalists just before the new brunch concept and menu were introduced in June. I observed the painstaking process of redesigning entire menus.
Eight Santa Maria Inn managers and I sat down at a table in the Garden Room, tasting the new fresh-baked goods, prime rib hash, shrimp Louie wedge salad, grilled chicken paillard, and chilaquiles.
Kick it up a notch
Mild, medium, or muy picante?
That was the topic of a heated discussion over how hot to make one new brunch item, Authentic Chilaquiles, a popular Mexican breakfast dish made up of two fried eggs over tortilla chips soaked in homemade red chili sauce with refried beans and sour cream.
“I think it’s the perfect amount of spice,” Reinacher said.
But there was some debate in the kitchen to go spicier.
“I was on the side to keep it where it was,” Gromfin said. “If someone wanted it spicy, when we sauté the chips we can just add a few jalapenos to the mix.”
“That’s a debate between us,” Araizaga chimed in. “I like it more spicy. [Gromfin] wanted to keep it that way. I want it traditional. I mean, I’ve got the people in the back—they know traditional! If there’s going to be a Mexican dish, I want it traditional.”
“It think it’s too mild, when you think of that dish,” added Thomas Munoz, food and beverage manager. “I think you guys need to play with it a little bit more and find a happy medium.”
“I subscribe to the risk averse theory,” Gromfin added. “Especially being that we’re a free-standing hotel. You’ll never get anyone writing a bad review on Yelp or telling their friends they’re not coming back because something was just not spicy enough. But you will get people not coming back and telling other people that that was just so spicy that they couldn’t eat it.”
The healthy debate ended with a firm final verdict from the boss, “So the answer is: spice it up a bit,” Reinacher said.
“Done,” declared Gromfin with a pound to the table, as relieved laughter filled the room.
Every single menu item has to pass a litmus test of sorts; will it work with the ingredients they have? Can the line cooks and chefs create it in a timely manner? What is the proper price point, plate size, and flavor profile? Everything is second-guessed and then reanalyzed.
The public might not realize all the thought and effort that goes into menu development and dish composition, which are exponentially more challenging in a full-service hotel like the Historic Santa Maria Inn.
It’s fairly common to orchestrate a 250-person banquet, a packed restaurant, and other events all on the same day, without a hitch.
“We are able to execute it so well that nobody realizes that we just fed 500 people within the last hour and a half and everyone was seated on time,” Munoz said. “That’s the joy of operating a restaurant ... you’re able to manage it all, it’s such a well-oiled machine.”
Not only does the inn expect to serve “memorable, spectacular” cuisine, but the wait staff strives to be top-notch, too.
“We want to be light years ahead of our competition as far as service is concerned because you don’t have that in this town,” Reinacher said. “It doesn’t matter what restaurant you go to in this town, the service is not necessarily outstanding. There might be a few superstars here and there, but for the most part the profession of being a waiter in this town is not recognized or developed effectively.”
Reinacher is doing his part to groom potential workers. He serves on Allan Hancock College’s culinary institute’s advisory committee, to help educate young people entering the restaurant and hotel industry.
He also credits the inn’s dedicated and generous owners, Hardy and Judy Hearn and Blanche Hollingsead, who care deeply about the community and the landmark hotel.
“We’re extremely fortunate to have owners who are extremely loyal to employees who are loyal to them,” Reinacher said. “And they don’t own the Historic Santa Maria Inn strictly for profit and loss. They own it because they love this hotel.”
Hollingsead said they also strive to keep the love alive on their property.
“The inn is so romantic with people proposing marriage here, hosting weddings, celebrating anniversaries, and yes, even immaculate conceptions,” Hollingsead said with a wink.
Her statement isn’t entirely far-fetched; Santa Maria’s mayor likes to tell the story of how he was conceived at none other than the Historic Santa Maria Inn.
His parents, Helen and Larry Lavagnino, lived at the inn in room 210 for six months in 1935 when she became pregnant with “Little Larry.”
A star and a sign now grace the door on Room 210 reading, “Mayor Larry Lavagnino—The Beginning.”
“It’s a historical place for the people of Santa Maria,” co-owner Judy Hearn said. “Longtime families have been bringing their families there for many years for special occasions and that means a lot to me. We want to keep the hotel looking beautiful.”
“It’s one of the gems we keep polishing. It is one of the city gems,” she said.
Many consider it the crown jewel, now with new reason to sparkle.
Contributing columnist Wendy Thies Sell writes the Sun’s food and wine column. Contact her at email@example.com.