EL DORADO — The line stretched into the gravel parking lot here on Sunday morning.
People arrived in or on red Corvettes, black choppers, white sedans and silver pickups to eat, to socialize, to support.
It took a good 90 minutes for some to inch into the El Dorado Cafe, six miles shy of Placerville, the scent of Eggs Benedict, coffee and triumph emanating into the crisp air. They arrived from Galt, Woodland, Elk Grove, Rocklin and beyond.
“Well worth the wait!” one customer said upon exiting the eatery, followed by another who chanted, “USA! USA! USA!”
Restaurant owner Cherie Baldridge on Friday announced on her Facebook page that she would reopen for full dining-room service for the weekend and beyond. The white board that greets customers by the front door reads, “Welcome back. We are here to stay!”
Inside, another whiteboard sign reads, “The Brave Always Stands 1st.” In smaller lettering, “Defend The First Amendment.”
Baldridge told The Bee that she had three obligations — to serve loyal customers and provide for her own business and personal survival. Baldridge said she was faced with mounting bills and an eviction notice on her Pleasant Valley Road business. By making a stand, Baldridge said she has no regret defying the statewide shelter-in-place order designed to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
She said reopening was not based on greed or ignorance. She relied on data, specifically this: El Dorado County has had no known fatal cases of coronavirus. Baldridge also said that a place like hers should be considered an essential service — for the tummy and soul.
She added that it was time to open for full service after El Dorado County announced it would allow stay-at-home directives to expire on April 30, though that announcement was not specific to restaurants.
So Baldridge seized the moment. She hustled from table to table over the weekend, taking orders, greeting familiar faces and new ones. She said well after the last customer left that she was “blown away by all of this.”
“I’m completely exhausted,” Baldridge said Sunday night. “I was overwhelmed by all the people who came. I never expected that sort of reaction. I wasn’t sure anyone would know or care. We’re just a tiny place in the middle of nowhere trying to serve customers.
“I just know I was disgusted with what was going on — shutting down the state, all these small businesses going under. I couldn’t take another month. I have to survive. I didn’t want to wind up broke and homeless, heartbroken, and that’s where I was headed. It wouldn’t be fair. I wasn’t going to allow that.”
Baldridge said she can feel for those who were forced to close down, including family-owned Biba Restaurant in Sacramento. That loss felt like a death in the family, Biba’s owners said.
No one wore protective masks in line or inside El Dorado Cafe on Sunday. The discussion inside and out was the same theme: back to normal. This felt like any other Sunday before the pandemic swept in. There were people young and old, babies, toddlers, teenagers, middle age and the elderly. Nothing masked their smiles. Well, mostly.
“The next guy who tells me sheltering … works, I’ll punch him in the face,” said one middle-aged man, balling up his fists.
“Honey, we’re here to eat,” his wife said.
At the end of the line, Tim Owens of Galt said he drove nearly an hour for a breakfast for three.
“I wouldn’t bring my 2-year-old son and wife here if I felt it wasn’t safe,” Owens said. “The biggest fear we should have is of fear. People are tired of sheltering in. It’s time to reopen.”
No other choice
Baldridge said take-out dining wasn’t enough to sustain her business. Business was down to 10 percent of normal revenue since the El Dorado Cafe and thousands of other similar spots across the state were reduced to food-to-go services in mid March to quell the spread of the virus that has killed just over 2,000 in California.
Baldridge said her message to other small-business owners is this, “Reopen. Survive.” She added on her Facebook, “Business owners, please unite and open your doors as power in numbers. Will they come for all of us?”
Baldridge has owned El Dorado Cafe for just over four years. She has navigated the challenges of being a small-business owner while experiencing the most trying year of her life. She lost her mother to cancer last summer and has gone through a difficult divorce. She could not bear to think of losing her restaurant as well.
“This is all I know, all I’ve ever done,” Baldridge said. “The restaurant business is hard enough. This made it all the more hard, the pandemic and the challenges, but I have the right do something about it. People don’t have to come by our restaurant. If they don’t feel safe, don’t come.”
A record showing
Baldridge said her wood-walled building seats 35. Open from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., she said a booming good day would be serving 100 customers. On Saturday, the eatery ran out of food, a first. On Sunday, El Dorado Cafe served 188, a record.
“We’ve never had a line out the door like this, ever,” Baldridge said. “I took a moment to look outside and couldn’t believe it.”
She added, “Our phones (Sunday) were ringing off the hook. Calls from everywhere: Wyoming, New York, Virginia, Minnesota, Oregon, Colorado — everywhere. People thanking me, wanting to send a donation, wanting to visit. Wow, dude. Wow!”
She added, “Took 18 calls. Two said we were horrible people, that we were out to kill people with the virus and that we were selfish. Really? We’re trying to survive, not die.”
Behind the line in the parking lot was a blinking digital road sign saying, “El Dorado Cafe. Welcome Back. We’re Open.” Not too far off on Highway 50, similar road signs read, “Avoid Gatherings. Stay Home. Save Lives.”
Tanya Collins of Rocklin was part of a group of seven that enjoyed a family breakfast. They drove past those signs. She said she’s a people person, a hugger, and she looked the part on Sunday.
“We just want to feel normal again,” Collins said. “I feel we have flattened the curve on this virus. People need to get back to work, back to life, back to normal. I just want to give the owner here a big hug.”
With that, someone called for Baldridge. She hustled over. The women hugged and laughed. They thanked each other.
Baldridge on Sunday night paused to reflect, her feet aching from a marathon weekend of business.
“We were closed for two months,” she said. “Barely afloat. Every morning, I would come to the restaurant to feed regular customers who kept coming back, five old men in the late 70s and 80s. All live alone. None cook. None even have an oven. They’d eat Cheerios all day otherwise. I was there for them. They need us. We need them. We need to be open.”
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