Tucked in a quiet corner of western Yolo County, Winters embraces the soul of small-town living. Centered around a historic downtown complete with white gazebo and an oversized main street clock, this tiny farm town (population 6,624) is on the cusp of a burgeoning new food scene.
Surrounded by agriculturally rich farmland and meticulously maintained orchards and vineyards, the ingredients for the new awakening are literally in the town’s backyard.
Informed locals and seasoned regulars are not entirely surprised by the growing attention Winters is receiving. “The food has always been an important part of Winters,” says town native Cole Ogando, co-owner of Preserve Public House. “Many of the restaurants have been here since I was a kid. The only difference now is, they are more in tune with what people are looking for today, which is to know where their food comes from. That fits in nicely with what we are trying to do at Preserve.”
On the route from the Sacramento valley to Napa, Winters is blossoming into an affordable destination getaway, offering a plethora of outdoor recreation alongside its increasingly sophisticated cuisine.
“Winters has some of the best routes for riding, which is a big draw for cyclists,” says John Pickerel, owner of the Buckhorn Restaurant Group, which includes Buckhorn Steakhouse, Putah Creek Café and Buckhorn Catering. “But now, we also have a theater and music venue, wine tasting rooms, a bed and breakfast, and other restaurants to choose from, so people have more of a reason to visit Winters. That’s important for our business.”
That variety of activity and food options is a major draw for visitors, and restaurateurs like Pickerel and Ogando have taken note. Each new eatery opening or expansion looks different from the last. For Ogando, diligently protecting the artistry of meal preparation and food preservation he learned from his Italian and Spanish grandparents has become his niche business model.
“Nothing was ever wasted,” he says. “They hunted, gathered and preserved their own food. It’s important to protect these traditions and processes and pass them on to the next generation.”
Along with his wife, Sara, and Le Cordon Bleu-trained Chef Robert Thompson, Ogando walks the walk, growing and picking many of his own ingredients, including fresh figs and sweet grapefruit, and working with local farms and suppliers to get the majority of the rest.
“We rely on what we have that is fresh, and then serve our preserved food right alongside that,” Thompson says.
Prior to joining Preserve, Thompson worked under renowned chef Julian Serrano, learning how to improvise with whatever was in the kitchen. On the Preserve menu, that age-old concept combines with modern culinary savvy to create dishes like the popular Preserve Platter, which marries fresh, house-cured meats and cheeses with jalapeno jelly, canned olives and dried nuts. Everything on the menu is made from scratch, including signature sandwiches, fresh-dough pizza, hot dishes and homemade desserts. A full selection of handcrafted beers (21 on tap), local wines and infused cocktails round out the beverage menu.
The ever-changing menu at Preserve is one of its appealing features, introducing customers to fresh new dishes while balancing the food and labor costs associated with running a profitable restaurant. “Everything we do has a purpose,” Ogando says. “We are always doing something that is building value for the restaurant, for the staff and for our bottom line.”
To help others get started on the art of preservation and to create an additional revenue stream, Preserve offers a number of classes to teach the fundamentals of canning and preserving. Customers can also purchase canning kits and pantry items.
That nod to tradition is also driving revenue at other restaurants across town. Located near the center of Winters on the corner of Main Street and Railroad Avenue, the turn-of-the-century DeVilbiss Hotel was an architectural icon in its day. Acquired in 1980 by Pickerel, the restored, red-brick building is home to Buckhorn Steakhouse, a casual roadside diner famous for generous portions of hand-cut steaks, lamb and fish.
A Winters mainstay for more than three decades, Buckhorn draws people from across the region, and many regulars have been making the trip for nearly 35 years. Known for its meat, Buckhorn staffs a full-time butcher to purchase, age and cut meat, and Pickerel recently brought in Fred Reyes, a well-known Sacramento chef and now the executive chef for Pickerel’s Putah Creek Café.
Reyes trained at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and worked in a number of high-end restaurants in Northern California before landing in Winters. He has been tasked with adding a more finished, upscale quality to the Buckhorn menu and bar.
“The clientele at Buckhorn is used to the traditional steakhouse menu, so we didn’t want to mess with that too much,” he says. “But I was able to come in and emphasize freshness, particularly with the fish, and offer some lighter sauces and in-season specials, which helped enhance the menu.”
The specials became a big hit, as did the Tomahawk rib-eye steak, which is prepared tableside.
“People have a certain expectation when they come to Buckhorn Steakhouse,” Pickerel says. “We work really hard on all the basics and make sure we have consistent quality in our food and service.”
As a result, the restaurant is a constant bustle, always in the black and serving as a guide for other restaurants trying to emulate its successful business model. “The most expensive item in any restaurant is an empty chair,” Pickerel says. “We make sure we keep ours filled.”
Another locally loved eatery was recently thrust into the national spotlight when celebrity chef Guy Fieri featured Reyes and the Putah Creek Café on the Food Network’s popular “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” show. The exposure brought in plenty of new customers plus an increase in awareness around the recent elevation of gourmet cuisine in Winters.
“We have a great abundance of food in the area and lots of local farms that we can tap into for our supplies, which makes a big difference in the freshness and quality of the food we prepare,” Reyes says. “The local produce and veggies and wide variety of eggs and cheeses gives us the option to be creative with our dishes while still keeping things fresh.”
Open daily for breakfast and lunch, weekend lines are routinely out the door as patrons start lining up at 6:00 a.m. for omelets and waffles. The café is also open four nights a week, and the brick pizza oven turns out crisp pies that are a hit with the dinner crowd.
“The profit margins on breakfast are typically better than on any other meal,” explains Reyes. “With our successful breakfast and lunch crowds, we are able to keep the dinner menu price points lower than most, while still making a profit.”
Experienced, passionate chefs; fresh, local ingredients; and a vibrant community filled with galleries, shops, music and food are proving to be a winning recipe for Winters. And more and more people are starting to take notice, flocking to the town for a well-planned meal or a weekend getaway.
“There is a certain amount of local pride here,” Thompson says. “Most of us grew up together, went to high school together. And now we are back in Winters doing what we love. Customers can sense that bond. It’s good for us and it’s good for business.”
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