Casa Nostra owner Raffaele Cristallo (from left), server Alessandro De Luca and La Placa Family Bakery manager Debora La Placa are struggling due to closures along Highway 9 that have diverted potential customers. (Drew Penner/Press Banner)

The fallen branches have been neatly arranged along a rock border next to the La Placa Family Bakery parking lot as the sun streams down through the redwoods to the red translucent awning, but here along Highway 9 in Ben Lomond, the storms are anything but a forgotten memory.

After the important route for mountain folk and Silicon Valley commuters became blocked during the series of atmospheric rivers, a detour from Felton to the community was set up that’s literally stopped customers from frequenting local establishments.

“It’s becoming unbearable,” said Debora La Placa, the bakery’s manager. “We don’t get business anymore. I tried to call the County, but nobody answers.”

On Wednesday, FEMA opened the Felton Disaster Recovery Center and the Small Business Administration has been meeting with business owners across Santa Cruz County as locals pick themselves up after the storms. But the struggles faced by the La Placas and others in the area highlight the complexity of moving on after the storms.

The bakery is quite popular with locals and was even named Best Bakery by readers in this year’s Best of San Lorenzo Valley contest.

La Placa says they normally sell at least 20 to 25 pizzas on a slow day.

“Yesterday, I sold five,” she said. “In the meantime, I still have to pay people to come to work.”

Debora La Placa says the road closures after the Hwy 9 landslide have resulted in a massive loss of business at the bakery. (Drew Penner/Press Banner)

The glistening croissant and puff pastry case was stocked to the brim after a morning rush that—once again—failed to materialize.

Raffaele Cristallo, 47, the owner of Casa Nostra Italian Restaurant across the street, says the detour has unfairly penalized his business.

They’ve been dealing with Highway 9 closures since before Christmas, he noted.

“Then, all the sudden the mudslide happened, and it ruined everything,” he said. “This is already a hard time of year.”

Business has dropped by about 40%, estimates Cristallo.

“I have to take at least two to three people off the schedule every day because we can’t afford it,” he said. “So, we risk losing these people, because they’ll find a job somewhere else. It creates big trouble.”

He says he’s tried to reason with Caltrans, but hasn’t had any luck.

“They don’t listen,” he said. “They don’t care.”

There’s a single sign that says the restaurant is open by the detour in Ben Lomond, but Cristallo says it wasn’t provided by Caltrans.

“I paid for that myself,” he said. “Through the years I learned I have to ‘build my own.’”

Alessandro De Luca, 45, who lives above the bakery, was hanging out with his fellow Italian community members. The Casa Nostra server was enjoying a day off—he’s had quite few of them lately.

“He pretends to work,” Cristallo jokes of the attentive mainstay of their front-of-house team.

“Three days, no schedule,” said De Luca, sharing his mounting concerns about his declining ability to pay rent. “Mal. Not good. No money. No good.”

Part of the problem is that bills from recent months—when traffic was still flowing past—are just now coming due, notes Cristallo.

“It’s considerable the amount of business we’re losing,” he said. “That’s like 100s of thousands of dollars for some businesses.”

Suddenly, two men appear and enter the bakery—laptop in-hand. They’re suppliers.

“I have to cut some stuff off,” La Placa says quietly.

Raffaele Cristallo, the owner of Casa Nostra, says he’s had to cut wait staff from the schedule, at the Ben Lomond location, in the wake of the mudslide. He’s seen here standing in front of their fence and sign that were damaged during the storms. (Drew Penner/Press Banner)

Cristallo has been forced to have some difficult conversations, too.

“Some suppliers will drop the food if you don’t pay the bill; it’s a really hard situation,” he said. “This is for real. We’re teeter-tottering to shut down the business.”

Days earlier, a member of the family that owns the Brookdale Lodge (located a few miles north of Ben Lomond, up Highway 9) attended a packed meeting at the Zayante Fire Hall featuring representatives from the County, FEMA, PG&E and the Small Business Administration, among others.

Jason Patel, who works for his parents, says they’re still assessing if it’s worth taking out a loan.

“The restaurant has a brook running through it—that brook is now a river,” he said. “It filled in with a lot of debris from the fire from the top of the mountain, so it’s gonna be a lot of work…to clear it out.”

Their guests had a hard time learning what was going on during the storms, he noted, as communication systems were knocked offline by a loss of power—which also caused produce for their restaurants to go bad.

The Patels ended up paying about $700 to $800 a day for fuel to keep their generators running.

“Like everyone else, we just took hits,” he said. “Some people couldn’t evacuate. They were stuck. When you find someone’s staircase in your brook, yeah that’s a problem.”

Allen Strong, 60, a cleaner at La Placa Bakery, said he actually saw the devastation suffered by Brookdale Lodge back in 1982, when he owned the Brookdale Country store.

A culvert became plugged, sending water into the kitchen off the Brook Room, he recalled.

“It leaped like a chocolate monster over the road—like a tidal wave,” he said. “That wall was like paper to it.”

He also remembers the aftermath of the Love Creek Slide that year.

“The whole neighborhood of Woodland Drive came down,” Strong said. “We had to go out there with boats, with canoes, to cut holes through the roof of my friend’s house.”

Seeing the memorial to the landslide—kids’ toys, stuffed animals and crosses—means a lot to him and others in the area.

“I was there the day after it happened,” he said. “For the people that survived it—which not many did—it’s really important.”

While the San Lorenzo Valley was pummeled with more rain then, he says the winds were more intense this time.

He wishes authorities would allow traffic to flow right up to Highlands Country Park, where there are multiple turn-around options, to provide some relief to businesses like his employer.

“It’s just a matter of a little bit of balance,” he said.

Two “spiders” remove earth from the slope above the landside site along Hwy 9 on Wednesday afternoon. (Drew Penner/Press Banner)

Just beyond that park, two large earth movers called “spiders” were perched—for the second day—along the steep hillside above the section of Highway 9 where more than 100,000 tons of debris slammed into it.

While crews had managed to clear the initial slide, workers were now pulling down additional debris from above to create a stable slope, said Dominic Riojas, a safety officer with Watsonville-based Granite Construction, Caltrans’ contractor running the clean-up.

When asked why traffic wasn’t allowed to flow right up to the park, he said that was above his pay grade.

“We just follow what Caltrans’ specifics are,” he said.

Cristallo says he spoke with a representative from the Small Business Administration at a meeting in Capitola the previous day and learned he can’t get assistance for revenue loss related to road closures.

Jason Hoppin, a spokesperson for the County, says he’s unsure what may have led to La Placa feeling like she got the run-around from the municipality’s officials, but noted it may have been related to the fact the road is a Caltrans responsibility. He suggested the businesses reach out to FEMA for assistance, since the road closure was caused by a natural disaster.

After the Press Banner contacted Caltrans on Wednesday about the business owners’ plight, spokesperson Kevin Drabinski said the State agency was committed to seeing what it could do to help them.

“We have notified the superintendent on the project of the concerns raised by the local businesses,” he said, adding the message was communicated that same day. “He will be reaching out to see if we can, in any way, alleviate that situation.”

Less than an hour later, Drabinski called back to say the official had spoken with the La Placa family and promised to put up a sign informing customers that the businesses are open.

“Our project manager reached out in person to the businesses,” he said. “We’re going to try and put up a portable message sign.” 

However, Drabinski told the Press Banner that from 6-10am and again from 2-7pm Caltrans will have to continue directing potential customers away from the businesses to keep traffic flowing on Glen Arbor Road.

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Drew Penner is an award-winning Canadian journalist whose reporting has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Good Times Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times, Scotts Valley Press Banner, San Diego Union-Tribune, KCRW and the Vancouver Sun. Please send your Los Gatos and Santa Cruz County news tips to [email protected].


  1. You can go to Highland Park. I go there 3 days a week for classes at the senior center

    That means you can go to Casa Nostra and La Placa
    People just need to know this

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