Erna's Elderberry House is offering takeout service. Photos by Edward Smith
Written by Edward Smith
In normal times, a trip to Erna’s Elderberry House in Oakhurst could cost hundreds of dollars for a dining experience at an acclaimed European-style resort and restaurant.
But now, as a way to bring food to the community in the midst of a shelter-in-place order, the fine dining restaurant is providing takeout service for its world-class food at an “approachable price.”
It was mid-March when General Manager Carina Stephens decided to close the guest chateaus in response to orders from Gov. Gavin Newsom. They had to let go of all the staff, except for Stephens and Executive Chef Robert Snyder.
The state order to close dine-in in restaurants ended their ability to do a major part of what made Erna’s special — the service and atmosphere. But in doing so, they’ve made their five diamond restaurant approachable for those who might just be driving by on Highway 41.
“We’ve eliminated everything we’re so well known for — except for the quality of food,” Stephens said.
When people go to Erna’s, Stephens said, it’s a special occasion. Birthdays, anniversaries, retirements — people make reservations and dress up to eat at the restaurant flanked on all sides by the Sierra forest. And when they come in the door, they are instantly greeted by servers and seated before they get their five-course meal. “It’s very service oriented,” she said.
On a normal day, the menus are fixed and revolve daily. They’ll accommodate for food allergies and make changes to food if desired, but Snyder stands by the claim that “if someone doesn’t like a certain food, it’s because it wasn’t prepared properly.”
But in the lead-up to tourist season, the coronavirus crisis left them and the surrounding community crippled.
It was the co-owner of the Elderberry House — Jonathan Rosensen — who asked Stephens and Snyder about opening their kitchen for to-go service, Stephens said. In the past, she had gotten calls from people asking if the restaurant did takeout. She always had to say “no” as that was never what the restaurant was about.
“Never say never,” Stephens said.
One thing they’ve had to adapt to is making sure the food is as perfect to-go as it is when they present it before guests at a table. When an order is placed, they ask what time the food will be picked up so when the food is done it’s ready for the sometimes 15-30 minute drive back home.
“It’s a new aspect for us, it’s so different, but at the end of the day right now is continue to do your best,” Stephens said.
The community has definitely embraced the move, she said. The first night they did $600 in sales, then $700, $800 and can make $1,000 a night at a time when many restaurants are struggling to stay open. Stephens says she’s seeing people who’ve already come two or three times.
“They’re excited to see Erna’s on an approachable level where it might be something that a lot of people, I think, get intimidated,” she said.
Entrees at Erna’s to-go will serve two and for $25, guests can get dishes such as duck confit with penne pasta or cast iron seared salmon, though the menu will rotate weekly, Snyder said.
They also have an “essentials market” for the same ingredients they’re using at the restaurant.
For the time being, it’s Stephens and Snyder holding down the fort. Snyder is making all of the meals as well as caring for the property. Stephens is handling the ordering and running all of the food and coordinating orders. Stephens and Snyder are opening and closing the restaurant seven days a week. Snyder gets up in the morning to prep and get the bread ready then handles all of the stations of the restaurant.
The dedication comes out of more than just revenue, Stephens said. For a lot of their vendors, Erna’s is their only customer.
“We’re doing it for a bigger reason outside of what it might look like,” Stephens said.
Stephens and Snyder say a lot of why they do it is to maintain the legacy.
“Rob and I are blessed to have our jobs,” she said. “That’s amazing. It’s also a bigger thing that we want to come out of this still being Erna’s Elderberry House Restaurant. When the dust settles — hopefully sooner rather than later — we want to be able to welcome our entire team back and have built something that can do that.”