How Temecula Businesses Outwitted the Pandemic

May 30, 2021 Updated: June 2, 2021

It’s an early Sunday morning in Temecula, California. The sun is high enough now to burn away the low-hanging mist that slides in from the ocean to reveal a Tuscan-like landscape of softly rolling hills, castlelike wineries, and expansive ranches famous for breeding and training championship quarter- and cutting horses.

Mark Matson (who looks like he could have stepped right out of a John Ford western) and his skilled horsewoman wife, Marika, are the owners of the Temecula Carriage Co. Along with their assistant, Arlene Eyerman, they’ve been up for a while, making sure the horses are fed, tack is polished, and their fleet of carriages is ready for today’s champagne clip-clop tours.

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Visitors pause to listen to mariachi music outside Bolero at Europa Village in Temecula, Calif. (Courtesy of Jim Farber)

Ten or so miles away in the downtown section of Temecula known as Old Town, the cooking and serving staff at E.A.T Marketplace, led by Executive Chef Leah Di Bernardo, is busy frothing lattes, bagging freshly baked doughnuts, and serving a bevy of breakfast delights. Since its opening in 2010 just steps from the civic center, E.A.T has been one of Temecula’s favorite go-to spots.

A few blocks from E.A.T, on Front Street, the staff of Temecula’s stellar new eatery, the Small Barn, the creation of Dan and Cathy Gibson, is settling into the daily ritual of prepping the kitchen: checking the meat locker, selecting fresh produce, and slicing and dicing the ingredients that will appear on Chef Angelo Sosa’s lunch and dinner menus—including the restaurant’s signature 32-ounce Wagyu beef tomahawk steak.

Meanwhile, back in the vineyards, the expansive flagstone patio of Bolero Winery at Europa Village is getting set up for what is certain to be a festive day of music and wine-tasting, with everyone looking for some pandemic relief—from families celebrating birthdays to cabanas filled with colors-wearing bikers sipping Syrah.

And while masking and health protocols are still in effect, a year ago, at the height of the pandemic, none of these scenes would have ever seemed possible. It was only through a combination of fortitude, imagination, and some much-needed government assistance that these four companies were able to survive and come back the way they have. The fact that they are almost all hiring and training new staff is a testament to how far they’ve come.

When California clamped shut, revenue streams dried up and mass layoffs followed. The staff of E.A.T. was reduced to two—Leah Di Bernardo and her sister, Joanne Scott. When they got a call from the County of Riverside to start turning out thousands of meals for shut-ins as part of the state’s Great Plates program, they added staff and went into triage mode, working at a feverish pace. Di Bernardo described it as the equivalent of being in a war zone, complete with the lingering effects of PTSD, from which she says she is still suffering.

The grand expansion plans at Europa Village—including its lavish new casitas—were put on indefinite hold. The Gibsons’ vision for opening their amazing new restaurant went from dream to nightmare. The Matsons were so desperate they didn’t know if they’d be able to afford to feed their horses, which include their movie star Clydesdales, Chip and Floyd, which were featured in a Super Bowl-Budweiser parody ad.

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The menu at E.A.T. in Temecula, California, includes a signature 32-ounce Wagyu beef tomahawk steak. (Courtesy of Jim Farber)

Dining-in stopped entirely. Construction slowed to a crawl. Bolero relied on wine sales to keep going. Fortunately for the Gibsons, they had their business as plant growers and vintners to fall back.

The answer was ingenuity.

If romantic Cinderella coach rides were out of the question, the Matsons thought, why not create a theme-park-type ride as an alternative. For Halloween, they offered socially distanced carriage rides pursued by a galloping headless horseman. A transformed barn became Santa’s gingerbread house workshop complete with Old Saint Nick and his helpful elves. They created a Peter Rabbit egg hunt for Easter. Ironically, says Mark, the new events they created were so successful that he and Marika are thinking they might not even want to go back to business as usual.

Today Front Street in Old Town is bustling. Tasting rooms are open and wine is pouring throughout the valley. E.A.T almost resembles its former self, and the Small Barn is no longer a pipe dream but a culinary reality—think of it as the French Laundry next door to Texas Lil’s Mesquite Grill.

That’s Temecula!

When You Go

Visit Temecula: VisitTemeculaValley.com

The Small Barn: SmallBarn.com

Bolero at Europa Village: EuropaVillage.com/bolero

Temecula Carriage Co.: TemeculaCarriageCo.com

Jim Farber is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at Creators.com. Copyright 2021 Creators.com