A renewed enthusiasm for doing business in downtown Sonora doesn’t appear to be waning in 2018.
New restaurants, bars and entertainment venues are on tap to open in the coming months, while existing businesses are remodeling and expanding what they offer. Experts attribute the flurry of activity to a confluence of the natural cycles that downtown areas experience, an improved economy and new private investment.
“We’re on one of those up cycles where we’re seeing spaces being filled,” said Larry Cope, executive director of the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority. “We encourage people to come down and shop so those new ideas and storefronts that are launching will be with us long term.”
New businesses and a younger generation of merchants helped restore confidence in the city’s historic commercial district last year on the heels of a low in 2016, when dozens of empty storefronts lined Washington Street.
Cope said the highs and lows are to be expected because downtown areas tend to serve as incubators for new ideas, some of which work and others that don’t.
Doug Kennedy, co-founder of the Sonora-based Trado Restaurant Corp., is betting millions that the current upward trajectory will continue as he preps the opening of his Sonora Armory later this year.
The complex will include Kennedy’s existing Bourbon Barrel at 208 S. Green St., a live entertainment venue, retail store, and outdoor beer and wine garden called the Green Dog Beer Co.
“There’s a downtown resurgence,” Kennedy said while walking through the construction site Tuesday. “What it really comes down to is people believing in the economy and downtown growth.”
Kennedy made his fortune working in the lucrative video game industry over the past two decades. He and his wife, Tracie Snitker Kennedy, co-founded the Twain Harte-based Reverb Communications in 2002, which has handled marketing campaigns for popular video games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band.
In 2014, Kennedy co-founded the Seattle-based company Studio Wildcard that developed a successful video game called “ARK: Survival Evolved.” He said the game has generated $400 million in revenue over the past two years, including $40 million in the month of December alone.
Trado Restaurant Corp. is a joint venture started by Kennedy and his wife in 2013 that’s behind the Sonora Armory project as well as the existing Bourbon Barrel, which opened in October 2015.
The company announced Tuesday morning that the Bourbon Barrel will be temporarily closed, likely for several months, so that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. can relocate the existing power system in the front of the building to a new $150,000 grid in the back that will power the whole facility.
“We’re not just hooking together a couple of extension cords to power this place,” Kennedy said.
Meanwhile, the Bourbon Barrel will be extensively remodeled to allow for more seating and a larger music stage. The kitchen and bathroom are being removed because larger facilities are being constructed to serve the entire complex.
The front door of the Bourbon Barrel will be removed because the entire complex will be accessed through one main entrance that formerly served as the entrance to Stage 3 Theatre Co..
Delays in the Armory’s development, which was initially planned to open in late summer last year, forced the nonprofit community theater to suspend future productions and find other accommodations.
Kennedy plans to host live music and other entertainment in the renovated theater. His company organized and promoted the Unruly Country Brew N’ Que Festival that drew thousands in late September to the Mother Lode Fairgrounds in Sonora.
The entire Armory is expected to be able to hold more than 600 people at a time.
An opening date of April 20 was announced by Kennedy in November. However, he now says the date remains undetermined due to delays in getting utilities connected and other clearances from the city.
While the complex is one of the more visible projects underway in the downtown area, other new businesses are holding soft openings and existing ones are remodeling to capitalize on the momentum gained over the past year.
Hot Shotz Sports Bar and Grill at 123 S. Washington St. underwent a transformation over the holidays that includes a new bar with added beer taps and booth seating along the walls in the front half of the restaurant.
The goal of the remodel is to provide more seating and promote a more family oriented atmosphere, said Hot Shotz owner Jim Pranes, who has worked to grow the business since taking it over in 2016.
“I was trying to make it more into mine, but we also limited our guests,” Pranes said of the former layout. “There a lot of people who don’t like the high tops and think it’s just a bar.”
Pranes said this marks the start of his plans to re-brand the business over the next year, which will include a name change, broadened dinner menu and more events.
Bryan Davies, who does marketing for Hot Shotz, said business has increased roughly three-fold in the past couple months through advertising on social media and the addition of weekly karaoke events on Wednesday nights that regularly draw sizeable crowds.
The Sonora Tap Room, which opened last April at 1 Linoberg St., is similarly planning a slight change to its layout next week by installing new bench seating and tables with the help of regular customer and craftsman Joe Machado.
“The idea is to create more lounge-style seating for people to play games and stuff like that,” said co-owner Nayland Chappell, who also plans to host more events this year starting with regular wine tastings tonight.
When it comes to new businesses, Winters Tavern Motherlode Grill held its soft opening last month in the building formerly occupied by the Europa Deli, Sports Bar and Grill at 275 S. Washington St.
The business is owned by Sonora couple CJ Valenti and Corinne Robinson, who have owned and operated the successful Winters Tavern in Pacifica since 2013.
Robinson is a Sonora High School graduate and remembers growing up “running around downtown,” where her grandmother had a clothing store.
“It’s nice to be back and see the growth on its way,” Robinson said. “Now, I’m more driven to help the community grow even larger.”
The couple has strived to create a feel in the new restaurant that remains true to the area’s roots by incorporating local artifacts, such as a 1969 Seeburg jukebox that they restored and filled with an eclectic mix of 45s from many eras and genres.
Valenti described the jukebox’s selection as “the gems people recognize instantly and even the toughest of tough guys will start to tap their foot and smile.”
Music will be a big part of the new business as they plan on using the stage at the back of the bar area for hosting live acts on the weekends. Valenti said Friday and Saturday nights will be reserved for heavier, experimental rock, while music on Sunday afternoons will be more mellow.
They said there was a large crowd on New Year’s Eve when they hosted a live show with a mix of independent artists.
The couple is planning a grand opening on Feb. 2 with an expanded food menu when work on the dining area is completed.
Another established restaurant expanding to Sonora is Ryderz Restaurant and Lounge, which currently has a location in Oakdale. The new business will be located in the Sonora Inn at 160 S. Washington St. in the space that formerly housed Christopher’s Ristorante.
Jeff Kearns, who was working on the building Tuesday, said the restaurant will serve traditional American food and likely be open exclusively for breakfast and lunch. They are hoping to open by the end of the month.
New restaurants and entertainment venues aren’t the only new businesses planning to open early this year.
Andrea Overholtzer, a Sonora native, is putting the finishing touches on her new bakery called Eighty One at 81 S. Washington St., which she hopes will be ready to open by the end of the month as well.
Overholtzer plans to serve traditional baked goods, including scones, cookies, croissants, and fresh bread, as well as smoothies, coffee and espresso drinks. She previously operated Corner Space Cakes in Sonora.
“Just from the excitement, we feel it will be a good thing,” Overholtzer said. “Everybody who walks by is asking when we will be open.”
Overholtzer and her family have been working to overhaul the space formerly occupied by Tar Flat Sonora, which moved across the street to 64 S. Washington St. and will soon move again to the former Servente’s Saloon that closed down last month after its owner of 27 years retired.
They planned to have the work done last year, but construction was more complicated than anticipated.
“We’re hoping to open in just a few more weeks as long as all the permits and inspections go as planned,” Overholtzer said. “It’s been a year of work, but it’s gone very smoothly.”