You create everything in your life” is painted in handwritten scrawl just above the kitchen window. Faded blue wood panels collected from old boats are tacked to the walls. Small tables are scattered about. Two C-shaped booths are pushed up against large windows giving full view out onto Third Street. Passersby look in. Diners look out. Meet GG’s Earth and Surf, the first green-certified restaurant in Santa Rosa.
Suzan Fleissner, the owner of the recently opened vegetarian/pescetarian restaurant says that the quote on the wall was her mom’s. Formerly, it lived on a scrap piece of paper beneath a magnet on her fridge for years before she found the perfect place to put it, right on her restaurant wall. Fleissner named her restaurant GG’s in memory of her mom, Gudrun, whom her own children called Grandma Gudrun. “I found myself searching for a name that would make me happy to hear over and over again,” Fleissner says. And the space itself is not without Grandma Gudrun’s influence.
Aside from her quote on the wall, Fleissner kept in mind her mom’s favorite saying, “If it isn’t used, it isn’t loved,” while shopping for the restaurant’s décor, purchasing most of it second-hand and refurbishing it herself. The tables are from the Flamingo in Santa Rosa, the booths from Roy’s in San Francisco, and the blue wood on the walls from a scrap lumber yard in Berkeley. Over the last 10 years, Fleissner said that she ate out a great deal with Grandma Gudrun, who enjoyed trying new restaurants in the area. As a result, Fleissner became increasingly interested in restaurants offering local and sustainable foods, an interest that would inspire her to open GG’s.
During a recent Wednesday lunch, Fleissner is hard to pin down. Informally clad in jeans, a white collared shirt and a gray sweater, she doesn’t stand out as the owner. The restaurant has hardly been open a month, and already the press has been in two or three times, and the buzz about the restaurant that finally occupies “that empty space” on Third Street has caught up. Patrons come in talking among themselves about the inexpensive fare and the already famous Sunday brunch.
When she sits for a moment, Fleissner is warm but distracted, her eyes constantly scanning the restaurant while she talks. She answers questions quickly, leaving expounding detail at the door, seeming eager to get back to work. Having started her hospitality career 30 years ago at Rosie’s Cantina (which is now the Third Street Aleworks, coincidentally GG’s next door neighbor) and being part owner in Hemenway and Fleissner’s in the ’80s, she is not new to the hospitality industry.
At the core, it is the personal elements of GG’s that shine. After selling her interest in Hemenway and Fleissner in the ’80s, Fleissner owned and operated Simply Savory catering while raising her two children. She also contributed to local restaurants and catering businesses like John Ash and Co., Mixx and Elaine Bell Catering. Fleissner furthered her skills at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, earning a degree in hospitality and restaurant management that included an externship at Nick’s Cove during Pat Kuleto’s renovation of the famous coastal eatery. After all that collaboration, Fleissner was ready to do things her way.
The California-based nonprofit Thimmakka educates restaurant owners on greening processes. To be certified green by Thimmakka, a restaurant must implement 60 environmental measures; GG’s implements 453 environmental measures, exceeding the minimum by a sizable amount. What has becoming “green” meant for GG’s? Installing all Energy Star equipment, using environmentally friendly cleaning products, putting “to go” food in recyclable containers (no styrofoam), reducing waste by composting, not serving meat and remaining true to the “locavore challenge,” which means that almost everything on the plate has come from within a 150-mile radius. Naturally, exotics like pepper and cinnamon are still obtained by the old colonial model.
That the food at GG’s is both vegetarian and locally grown has very tangible environmental benefits. Buying food from within 150-mile radius means that less actual gas has been used in transporting the ingredients to the Third Street location. In turn, this challenge means that Fleissner and head chef Trevor Anderson devote a great deal of energy to buying produce from local farmers, fish from local, sustainable clean fish programs and bread from local bakeries like Penngrove’s Full Circle. The elimination of meat from the menu ensures that GG’s does not contribute to the pollution or land and water wastes that come with raising livestock.
These efforts, however, are not always easily achieved. For example, Fleissner admits that finding organic or sustainable local wines for her “everyday” wine list, which features 20 wines under $25, posed a challenge. The goal was certainly attainable, thanks to the wine country in the backyard. But Santa Rosa’s position of latitude 38 means no tropical fruit, a geographical reality that cannot be sidestepped. “Staying true to the locavore idea means leaving certain luxuries, like grilled pineapple, which is one of my favorites with fish, off the menu,” Fleissner says.
Other challenges to Fleissner’s vision include the expensive start-up cost of being green, like buying all Energy Star products. The expense seems reasonable to Fleissner, though. Not appearing bothered by it, she says, “Eventually it will pay off. PG&E bills will be smaller a few months down the road.” Call it intuition to assume that economic benefits are not why Fleissner went green with GG’s.
When asked what her favorite part about opening her own restaurant is, Fleissner says, “I’m just glad to offer a menu where people never have to ask, ‘Was this made with chicken stock?’ or ‘Does that have animal fat in it?'” She adds, “I’m glad my customers don’t feel they have to take precautions before digging in.”
The success of the idea is in part due to the fact that reading GG’s menu is not like reading a “substitute for meat” menu, using tofu where meat is usually featured. Instead, it is clear that GG’s has a new way of approaching meals based in earth-grown materials. For Fleissner, it was an easy menu to make, saying, “You just don’t need to cook with meat. Like with our soups, we don’t lose anything by not using meat stock. The full flavor is still there. I don’t think it’s necessary to use meat in a good minestrone.”
Somewhat surprising for a green, sustainable vegetarian restaurant, the menu is reasonably priced. Six oysters are $10; mushroom walnut pâte is $6; vegetable stew, $8; and an array of fish dishes range from $10 to $13. Fleissner is just happy to offer her inspiration. “Through all the jobs and time in between, my vision was to have my own restaurant,” she says. “I know I talked about it, dreamed and schemed out loud about it, and now I am living it.” Of that beautiful scrawl from Grandma Gudrun that is written above the kitchen window, Fleissner says, “What you feel about what you create is what counts most.”
This is a favorite recipe that Fleissner frequently made when toiling away in cubicle America. Recipe adapted from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.
2 c. cooked beans
1 c. minced onion
1 c. minced parsley
1 egg (or egg substitute)
1 c. coarse cornmeal or fresh bread crumbs
salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
Mash or process beans, adding a bit of liquid if dry. Don’t purée; you want some chunks in mix. Combine all other ingredients. (Here you can play with heat, taste or texture by adding pepper flakes, chopped veggies or herbs.) You should be able to shape with hands without much sticking. Form into 2- to 3-inch patties.
Heat skillet, cover bottom of pan with oil. Brown on both sides; total cook time 7&–8 minutes.
Serve with salsa, salad dressing, lemon wedges or avocado cream.
GG’s Earth and Turf, 630 Third St., Santa Rosa. 707.528.1445.
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