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Twain Harte Family Dental re-opens

Twain Harte Family Dental has opened its doors again after a massive pine tree smashed through the building during a windstorm on Dec. 1, 2011.

No one was injured when the 100-foot tree sliced through the center of building, however, more than 15 people were in the structure when it was damaged, according to dentist Phil Grossman. He said some people were 6 inches from the tree when it fell through the roof.

“As we cleared rooms and confirmed that everyone was safely evacuated out of the building, we were extremely grateful to find that no one was seriously injured,” he said. 

The dentist office has been in business since 1986 and is owned by Grossman and dentist Charlie McKelvey, with associate dentist Ed Russell. The office has 14 employees.

With their office severely damaged, the three-member team of dentists set up temporary offices that were offered to them by colleagues in the community. 

“The logistics that had to happen to make this a reality were nothing short of impossible, but thanks to our wonderful staff we were able to persevere,” Grossman said.

Twain Harte Family Dental set up a temporary office across the parking lot from the damaged building by the end of December.

Contractor David Slankey rebuilt the office over the next five months. The bulk of the construction project was finished by the end of May and the dentists moved back in on Memorial Day weekend, Grossman said.

The building had to be re-roofed and two thirds of the interior walls were taken out because the tree cracked studs. Grossman said the damages totaled several hundred thousand dollars. 

He said repairs to the damaged building were paid for by insurance, but the owners also invested in improvements.

The disused dark room in the dental office was turned into another examination room with a dental chair. The dental office now does all of its X-rays using digital imaging.

The building owners used the opportunity to update the look and design of the office and make it more comfortable for patients. Flat screen TVs were added and the building has improved accessibility for people with disabilities. 

“All and all it was quite a challenging year, and we hope to never have to repeat it, but through it all we feel that we have emerged a stronger team and a better practice,” Grossman said.

The tree that damaged the dental office fell during a wind storm that cut a path of destruction across the Mother Lode with downed power lines, uprooted trees and 90-mile-per-hour gusts. More than a dozen homes were damaged or destroyed in the storm.

Contact Ryan Campbell at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it or 588-4534.


Retail home sales: Market turnaround?

Housing prices in the Mother Lode took some positive moves in August and September, indicating that the area market might have reached a bottom after a multi-year slump.

According to preliminary numbers from the Tuolumne County Association of Realtors, the median home price was $160,000 in September — up from $153,500 the same month last year. But the overall number of homes sold in September are down to 65 compared to 92 last year, according to the preliminary numbers.

The county saw a year-to-year jump in August for both median home prices ($159,900 to $200,000) and overall sales (77 to 83), according to the organization. And year-to-date statistics are also up, with 602 homes sold through August at a median price of $165,000, from 472 homes at $162,000.

So is this an indication of an upward trend? 

Ann Ritchie, executive director of the Tuolumne County Association of Realtors, said it’s too early to tell. While it is promising and could indicate the rocky local housing market has finally bottomed out and is ready to rebound, the numbers have been up and down depending on the month.

One trend that also looks promising, Ritchie said, is that distressed sales represent a much lower percentage of overall sales in August than they did in January.

“It’s just too soon to know,” Ritchie said. “I think we’re kind of bouncing along the bottom.”

Housing markets statewide have also seen mixed results. According to the California Association of Realtors, the state has seen five consecutive months of year-to-year sales gains through August. However, overall sales declined statewide in August from the previous month.

The statewide median home price in August was $343,820, up from July’s $333,860 and up 15 percent August 2011. According to the state association, higher-priced coastal markets are seeing strong demand, but some of the tougher markets — like those in the Central Valley — are still stagnant.

“The increasing share of sales in higher-priced coastal markets at the expense of the inventory-scarce distressed markets has been the primary factor in fueling the statewide median price,” association Vice President and economist Leslie Appleton-Young stated in a release of the latest numbers.

Calaveras County real estate numbers were not included in the statewide report, and in inquiries with the county Association of Realtors were not returned in time for this story.

Contact Chris Caskey at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it or 588-4527.


Rolling comfort: Kitchen parks in Jamestown

Jamestown residents Mark and Elizabeth Barley are trying to bring a little southern comfort to the Mother Lode.

The local entrepreneurs opened a mobile food trailer called Southern Comfort Express on Aug. 4 and are serving home-cooked southern classics like hush puppies and jambalaya at two locations.

The bright red food trailer can be found in the parking lot of the C&C Mini Mart on Victoria Way just off Highway 108 in Jamestown during the weekend. On Wednesdays, the trailer is parked in Moccasin, according to head cook and owner Mark Barley.

Originally from Arkansas, Barley has been a cook for the past 15 years, is a graduate of the California Culinary Academy and used to own Hazel’s restaurant in Modesto.

“I like bringing the southern hospitality back and giving people home-cooked meals,” he said.

The mobile kitchen is set up to be more versatile than a traditional brick and mortar restaurant, he said. Running his kitchen out of a trailer allows him to set up shop in multiple locations and do catering jobs as well.

“Food trailers are a growing trend and it works out great for me,” he said.

The on-the-go eatery serves Arkansas/Louisiana-style fried catfish, jambalaya pasta, shrimp and grits, frog legs and fried chicken. 

Barley said the hush puppies are made to order on the spot because they don’t taste right unless they are fresh.

The food trailer is open from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Saturday and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday in Jamestown. It is open from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in Moccasin.

Southern Comfort Express can be reached by calling 352-2204.


Hard at home work

Mel Kirk has a pretty ideal commute to work. It’s just down the hall.

The 29-year-old Mi-Wuk Village resident works full time as the vice president of marketing and public relations for Zen Studios, a video game company based in Budapest, Hungary. But thanks to modern technologies, he works out of his home office only a short walk from where he grew up.

“To me, the world feels like a small place,” Kirk said last week. “I feel very connected. It’s amazing what you can do over Facebook and Twitter.”

Zen Studios produces games on multiple platforms, including systems like Playstation, XBox and Wii, as well as computer systems, smart phones and tablets. The company largely focuses on developing games for the casual gaming market, with recent big releases including a pinball game based on “The Avengers” comic book series and movie.

Kirk started in the position about two years ago, with some of his main duties including marketing, press and promotion. He said he handles much of the company’s business dealings out of Mi-Wuk Village, and it’s not uncommon for him to close a big deal while at a local burger joint.

Kirk received his college degree in business from California State University, Stanislaus in Turlock and says he kind of fell into the video game industry. He got a taste for the big, corporate environment right out of college when he worked for the Kraft food company. But Kirk said finds himself more comfortable in a smaller environment in a dynamic industry.

“This industry changes so quickly,” Kirk said. “You’ve got to stay on top of what’s changing. I had played a lot of video games (before working in the industry) but what really got me excited about it what how fast things were moving.”

Zen’s business structure is one that Kirk says is becoming more common for smaller, tech-based companies. 

The corporate office in Budapest houses about 55 people, most of whom handle the coding, art and design for the games themselves. There are about five more employees like Kirk who live and work remotely in Northern California.

“All of the business is driven out of the west,” Kirk said.

He said the model works well because it allows the company to maintain a presence in the tech-heavy, California marketplace. But they don’t have to cover the overhead required to open an office in a city like San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles or Palo Alto.

The setup works well for the Lode resident as well, he said. He travels regularly to the Bay Area and internationally, but email, phone and video conferencing allows him to do more and more work without leaving the home office. A lot of Bay Area business people visit the central Sierra Nevada region for vacation and recreation, so it’s not uncommon to hold in-person meetings right in the area, he said.

“I think they all like having someone they know up here. It’s kind of an advantage,” he said.

Improvements in local technology have helped a lot, he said. Before much of the county saw upgrades in local high-speed internet, Kirk was using a less-than-ideal satellite connection. He said he would often have to go outside and knock off snow after a winter storm to get signals. 

There are still challenges, Kirk said. Working from home is a bit more isolating than being in an office environment. It also blurs the separation between home life and office life, and busy times can make work life all-consuming.

But Kirk said he’s put a system together to make it work. He makes extra effort to get regular face time with clients and others in the industry. And he gives himself little breaks and distractions, similar to water cooler talk or a lunch break at an office.

Of course, a pancake breakfast or some midday time with his young daughters Scarlette and Stella on a Monday or Friday trumps water cooler talk every time.

“To me, this is living the dream,” Kirk said.


Diamond Jim's bar now open

Diamond Jim’s Restaurant in Mi-Wuk Village is back in business — partially.

The longtime high country eatery on Highway 108 has been closed for the past 11 months after the building was badly damaged during a major winter storm in 2011.

Owner Antone Picchetti said the bar is open for business, but the dining room area is still closed for repairs. The restaurant serves a lunch and appetizer menu, but Diamond Jim’s well-known steaks and fresh seafood will not be on the menu until the kitchen has finished undergoing remodeling.

The restaurant closed Sept. 28, 2011 after a snowstorm in February 2011 caused a portion of the roof and walls to collapse. Picchetti said the sheer weight of the snow cracked beams and a falling limb tore a hole in the roof.

The business just opened Sept. 1 after being closed for nearly a year, he said.

“So far our customers are happy that we’re open, but the word hasn’t really gotten out there,” he said.

Picchetti said the reason for the long hiatus has been difficulty getting his insurance company pay for the damage.

“I thought we would be back open in February or March of this year, but it obviously hasn’t worked out that way,” he said before adding, “We’re glad to be back open and seeing our friends again.”

Picchetti has owned the business since 1989 and it is known as a popular stop for vacationers traveling to Pinecrest Lake or to visit high Sierra ski resorts. It’s most famous feature is a bullet-riddled wood carving of a gold miner, that stands watch outside of the restaurant.

The bar is open Thursday through Monday at 11 a.m. and closes in the evenings when business slows down, Picchetti said.


Black Oak Casino to rebrand before hotel opening

The Black Oak Casino will get a slightly different name in the coming months to reflect the opening of its hotel in spring 2013.

The Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians will rename the casino as the Black Oak Casino Resort and create a new monument sign and more than 20 new billboards to match, according to casino spokesman Al O’Brien.

The cost of the new signage and billboards has not yet been determined, he said.

O’Brien did not have many concrete details regarding the rebranding as of Monday afternoon because the casino’s efforts have been focused on completing the exterior of the hotel before winter, he said.

Construction has been underway for about a year and workers are putting up the walls of the fourth, and final, floor. 

O’Brien does not expect the casino’s logo to change drastically and said that like the Seven Sisters restaurant, The Hotel at Black Oak Casino will have its own logo.

The hotel will be the largest in Tuolumne County, with 148 rooms, including 30 suites. It will also have a fitness center, outdoor pool and 6,000 square feet of event space, according to the website.

The casino’s previous project was the construction of a gas station and mini-mart next to the 1,000-space parking garage with the intention of serving motorists and hotel guests.

Future plans for the resort include a golf course and housing development. 

The casino was built 11 years ago by the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians, and was originally 28,000 square-foot metal warehouse with 600 slot machines and six game tables. It has expanded to 164,000 square feet and now includes 1,200 slot machines, 24 game tables, a poker room, four restaurants, an entertainment venue, a bowling center and an arcade.


Hey, hey its the Monkeez

A Copperopolis couple is ready to open up Barrel of Monkeez in the late fall at the Tom Sawyer Hall in Angels Camp’s Frogtown.

Not just one of the simple table games of interlocking red plastic chimps, mind you, but something much bigger.

Matthew and Jennifer Iannarelli are putting the pieces into place for what they envision as becoming the premiere indoor family entertainment destination in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties.

“There’s not always a lot to do here,” Jennifer, 30, said she noticed, particularly after having her son and “number-one Monkee” Ayden, 2, five years after moving east from the Bay Area.

“Yes, there’s rivers and lakes … but it gets so hot in the summer and just nasty in the winter.”

So the interior designer and her husband, a landscape designer and construction worker, leased the nearly 10,000 square feet that have housed the arts and crafts exhibits for many years at the Calaveras County Fair and Jumping Frog Jubilee.

They have begun laying out what will soon be a karaoke dance music studio, “Magic Monkey Floor” sensory gaming system that can accommodate up to 10 players at a time, “human hamster bowling” with people climbing into the inflatable ball to strike soft pins, laser tag arena, multiple inflatable bounce houses for various age groups, nine-hole miniature golf and a “child-powered” indoor race track of non-motorized vehicles.

The Iannarellis said they have special-needs children on each side of the family and are designing Barrel of Monkeez with children with autism and cerebral palsy in mind with a jungle theme and lighting features throughout.

Matthew, 36, is keeping the theme specific to the laser tag course a closely guarded secret until opening, tentatively in November.

“We just encourage everybody to be involved with their kids and have fun,” he said.

Jennifer said she is already hearing positive feedback from parents club members at Bret Harte High School. Those 17 and younger will have to be accompanied by adults at the entertainment center, but the couple expects special events to be a big part of their business. Sober grad nights would be a good fit, Jennifer said, and Twisted Oak Winery has already expressed interest in celebrating a company Christmas party there. A 127-inch screen and 3-D projector will be installed for movie nights.

Barrel of Monkeez will remain open during the four days of the May fair and the exhibits once assigned to the hall will be housed elsewhere. The only change during the fair will be parking moved to outside of the main gate, Matthew said.

More information about Barrel of Monkeez can be found by visiting www.barrelofmonkeez.net. The website will be fully operational by the end of the month but links to the Facebook page for the business in the interim. Jennifer Iannarelli can also be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

Contact Sean Janssen at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it or 770-7197.


Black Oak taps new managers

Black Oak Casino has announced a new management team for it’s ambitious hotel project, which is set for completion in the spring of 2013.

The Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians announced the appointment of Paul Medawar as hotel general manager, Ron Pascual as director of hotel operations and Mariza Ponce as director of sales and catering.

Medawar has 22 years of experience in the hospitality field and has managed hotels throughout the U.S. with companies like InterContinental Hotel Group, Hilton Worldwide and Tachi Palace Hotel & Casino.

During his career, Medawar has been involved in opening and renovating hotels and achieved the Certified Hotel Administrator designation in 2007.

A native of Southern California, Medawar lives in Copperopolis with his wife, daughter and their two dogs.

Pascula was previously the director of the A.M.E. Mt. Zion Church in Black Mountain, N.C. His previous experience includes work as the directors of entertainment and operations at hotels and resorts Louisiana, as well as working for Harrah’s in Las Vegas and Reno, Nev. His background in hotel management focuses on food and beverage, and sales and marketing.

A resident of Sonora, Pascula is a father of two and enjoys the outdoors and golfing.

Ponce worked for the tour and travel department at the Chukchansi Resort in Coarsegold for nine years. She is also on the board of Sister Cities International and is responsible for developing relationships with sister cities around the world.

She lives in Merced County, has one daughter and enjoys traveling.

The hotel, next to the Black Oak Casino, will boast 148 rooms over four floors, including 30 suites, making it the largest hotel in the county. It will also have a fitness room and outdoor pool. The facility will also offer about 6,000 square feet of space in multiple rooms for meetings, conferences and other public events.

The hotel is the latest project for the growing Black Oak Casino, which was built 11 years ago by the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuks. Construction was completed about a year ago on a gas station and mini-mart next to the 1,000-space parking garage with the intention of serving tourists, local motorists and hotel guests. Future plans also include a golf course and a housing development.

Black Oak Casino was built in 2001, in a 28,000 square-foot metal warehouse with 600 slot machines and six table games. Today, the 164,000 square-foot casino has 1,200 slot machines, 24 table games, a poker room, four restaurants, a stage for live entertainment, a bowling center and an arcade.


Brown down to business

Business is simple, according to Firman Brown. Have a good product, be hands-on and watch your percentages, says the Calaveras County resident.

“You don’t have to know everything,” Brown, 75, said on Wednesday. “You just have to know people who know everything.”

He knows a thing or two about business. He was a successful beer, wine and liquor distributor for 35 years before retiring and moving to his ranch outside of Angels Camp.

And for the past five years, he’s been using that knowledge to help a local organization supporting the Calaveras County Fair — something that’s been increasingly needed as the fairgrounds face budget woes.

“We’re doing whatever’s necessary to help the fairgrounds,” he said. “Friends go to the community, and the community comes back to the fair.”

Brown, who’s also a classic car enthusiast, is president of the Friends of the Fair board in Calaveras County. He is among the initial members of the organization, which started in 2008 when the famous fair and jumping frog contest started facing some tough fiscal times as state budgets have tightened.

The organization raises money for infrastructure at the Frogtown fairgrounds, and also helps with volunteers and some events. Brown said when he first started volunteering with the fair, there wasn’t a great relationship with the community.

Brown said they have since done some little things to improve it, like a new sign at the entrance, the fair managing its own parking and the Friends handling the on-site alcohol sales instead of an out-of-state company to keep the money local.

The county fair, and many others around the state, faces even more challenges ahead. The state has implemented deep cuts in funding for fair organizations, forcing them to “operate like a business” more than ever before, Brown said.

His experience with fairs dates back to his childhood, as an avid horse rider. In his garage, he keeps a photograph of himself at 14 with the Junior Horseman’s Association.

“We have to, for the good of the community, keep this going,” Brown said. “A lot of us really believe in keeping this place open.”

A straight talker who is quick with a story or advice, Brown moved to his ranch overlooking New Melones Reservoir around 11 years ago. He lives there today with his wife, Janet Cuslidge, and jokingly refers to the scene through the back windows as the “little water feature” in the backyard.

He moved to Calaveras County from the Monterey area after retiring, saying he was drawn by the attitude of the people up the hill.

“It’s a nice group of people up here, good, down to earth people,” he said.

Brown’s work in beer, wine and liquor distribution put him in the middle of an important time for a dynamic industry. He worked as an early distributor for Mondavi wines and the then-startup Sierra Nevada brewery. And he says he remembers when Californians thought pinot noir was called “peanut newer” and merlot was just a grape for blending.

During those days, Brown said he was guided by two things.

“There’s no substitute for quality. And then I sold service,” he said. “Today, they teach price first (in business).”

Brown was also introduced to one of his other loves during those — one that still endures today. He recalled talking with a business contact who had a Ford Model A and had not completed restoring the car after owning it for almost 20 years.

When asked how his friend could keep something like that for so long without completing it, Brown was told, “This is a hobby — a hobby has no pressure.”

He bought his first classic car, a Model T, 25 years ago.

“I said, ‘That’d be fun,’” Brown said.

Today, Brown’s garage is like a small auto museum, with a machine shop connected that he calls “every guy’s dream.”

He has a restored 1950s tractor, which before restoring he used for work on his ranch. His 1926 Gardener with a “straight eight” engine, has a fold-out back rumble seat later copied by Rolls Royce. And his 1937 Cadillac is one of a limited release.

He sold his first model T recently.

“It was like losing a friend of the family,” Brown said.

But perhaps the most famous piece of his collection for Calaveras County residents doesn’t even run. It’s a 1965 Buick Riviera that had a tree fall on it. After taking out the engine and interior, Brown turned the classic car into a large barbecue grill. He named it Barbie.

“I enjoy them,” he said of restoring the classic cars. “It’s something I enjoy for me.”

Contact Chris Caskey at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it or 588-4527.


Grrr-eat burgers at ChowHounds restaurant

After closing Camacho’s nearly two months ago, its owners are gearing up for the opening of their new restaurant, ChowHounds, in Sonora this week.

Local entrepreneurs Bob and Debra Milz are opening ChowHounds in the same location at 1191 Sanguinetti Road in the Crossroads Shopping Center where they abruptly shuttered Camacho’s in early July.

ChowHounds is the vision of business consultant Gary Hall, of Sonora, who says he dreamed up the concept with a group of friends during the 1980s while in charge of VIP gourmet services at Caesars Palace Las Vegas Hotel and Casino.

Hall said ChowHounds will offer a wider selection and more-inviting atmosphere than other local burger joints.

“Every microscopic detail is significant,” Hall said about designing a restaurant and hopeful food chain.

While developing ChowHounds, Hall visited both popular and trendy hamburger restaurants in places like Los Angeles and Las Vegas to see what worked and what didn’t.

ChowHounds’ menu features a variety of specialty burgers and hot dogs with names like the “Widowmaker” and the “Mobster” each with a special twist. 

For example, the “Aloha” burger features Hawaiian-style ingredients like pineapple and teriyaki glaze.

Seven different “signature burgers” are each priced at $6.95, while a build-your-own burger option is available for $4.95 plus 50 cents for each additional topping. There are also seven “signature hot dogs” priced at $4.95 each, with a similar build-your-own hot dog option starting at $3.95.

Customers with bigger appetites can try the $7.95 “The Legend” burger featuring a half-pound sirloin patty stuffed with chopped bacon and cheddar cheese, which Hall believes will become the restaurant’s flagship menu item.

Specialty salads will be available for $6.95 each and an order of fries costs $3.95 and comes in a variety of styles, including topped with chili or tossed in chopped garlic.

While Hall and the Milz family hope ChowHounds will someday become a chain, they also wanted to give the location a local flair that will be inviting to area residents.

The walls inside are decorated with pictures of older model cars in front of historic and cultural landmarks throughout Tuolumne County, which hot rod enthusiast Hall said was his idea.

Hall, who was hired as a consultant while the Milz family was struggling to keep Camacho’s open, said he doesn’t see ChowHounds suffering the same fate as the restaurant that preceded it.

“There were 13 different Mexican cuisine restaurants in the area to compete with,” he said. “There are places that have good hamburgers, but not a unique hamburger stand like this.”

Bob Milz said the new concept reduces overhead costs and staffing, but some Camacho’s workers will return.

“What we did before was too involved,” he explained. “There were too many ingredients and it took too many hours to prep and cook everything.”

Milz, who owns and operates Sierra Hardware in Sonora with his wife, Debra, at first expressed reservations about re-entering the restaurant business after being forced to close Camacho’s because it was losing money.

Milz said he decided to give it another shot because he was facing a $100,000 lease obligation on the building and was optimistic about the ChowHounds concept.

“We had put our blood, sweat and tears in it the first go around and it didn’t work out, but we’re not quitters,” he said.

In the next few weeks, Milz also plans on transforming the former Camacho’s Express location at 230 N. Washington St. into a similar companion restaurant tentatively called “ChowHounds 2.” 

He said the menu will be simplified with the goal of getting downtown Sonora customers in and out within five minutes.

ChowHounds is scheduled to open for business Wednesday. It’s regular business will be Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays.

Contact Alex MacLean at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it or 588-4530.


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