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ON THE FARM
Katina spends her days at Single Thread's farm, just a few miles from the restaurant near the Russian River. Once she's done at the farm, she changes out of her muddy Blundstones and jeans to lead the restaurant's floral department, where she creates the elaborate garnishes for the hassun course and other dishes, as well as the restaurant's flower arrangements. But it's clear the farm is her passion.
With her neck-to-knuckles tattoos, black-frame glasses and knockout smile, she doesn't fit the Wrangler-wearing farmer image. But she's no dilettante. Katina oversaw the transformation of the five-acre farm from a weedy, former Chardonnay vineyard. With the help of her brother, daughter and daughter's boyfriend, her goal is to grow as much as 80 percent of the restaurant's produce. Her biggest challenge this winter? Slugs. The farm is not certified organic but uses chemical-free, organic methods.
"The slugs have been the worst problem we've had," she says with a sigh.
In addition to staple crops like green onions (Single Thread's logo is a spherical bunch of green onion flowers drawn by Katina's Portland, Ore.–based tattoo artist), mustard, kale, carrots and cabbage, Katina grows obscure Japanese greens and vegetables. While she's already been farming the plot for 18 months, she admits she's still learning how best to work the land.
"It's going to take some time to get to know each other."
Though Healdsburg is arguably the culinary star of Sonoma County, not everyone was eager to see Single Thread come to town. Months before they opened, the Connaughtons were hit by a rash of opposition by those who saw it as a gilded enclave for the 1 percent. While Healdsburg had long since gone from sleepy farming community to a NorCal Aspen, critics said Single Thread went too far. Adding to that sentiment is the building itself. It's owned by winemaker Pete Seghesio and it's built on the site of downtown Healdsburg's post office, and, as such, the location evokes strong feelings of civic pride and ownership among many long-time city residents.
Kyle has tried to see the upside to the criticism.
"It showed us that it was important to be part of the community and not just say we're going to come here and build some sort of ivory tower," he says. "You have to appreciate that people care that much about this community."
Once Single Thread opened, the negative sentiment seemed to fade and the glowing press reviews came in. But the criticism reignited with a vengeance when news broke in January that a mechanic's lien had been filed by Mike Behler, co-owner of Behler Construction, against the restaurant's New York developer. Behler claims developer Tony Greenberg failed to pay him and more than a dozen contractors nearly $400,000. The Connaughtons are not named in the lien, but it hasn't helped the restaurant's image.
"Normal people wonder how you could feel good about spending a small family's monthly grocery budget on one meal," a reader commented on a Press Democrat story about the contractor's dispute. "Furthermore, you supported people with Donald Trump's sense of business ethics, make the working class work on spec and then stiff them."
In a statement, developer Tony Greenberg said his firm did not withhold payment, but that Behler filed the lien before he had submitted a final bill. Greenberg says more than $400,000 has been set aside to pay Behler and his subcontractors "to ensure that 100 percent of whatever final payments Behler owes each and every subcontractor is covered. We implore Mr. Behler to pay all of his subcontractors in full or release the lien and allow us to pay them directly."
Behler says he did submit a final bill in December and payment for earlier bills have been delinquent.
"If we didn't file suit against them, they would just let it go and they wouldn't be required to pay us," he says.
In spite of the dispute, he wishes Kyle and Katina well.
"They seem like great people," he says. "We really have no issue with Kyle and Katina."
While the lien isn't the kind of publicity a new restaurant trying to win over locals wants, Kyle says they are committed to Healdsburg.
"We have to be ambassadors," he says, pointing to work they've done with the Sonoma Land Trust and local food pantries. "It's a small community. We need to show who we really are."
A STAR ON THE RISE
If a restaurant of Single Thread's caliber opened in Napa County, it would not be met with complaints over the high prices. Napa has been there, done that. In some ways, the Connaughtons are pioneers in Sonoma County, where the fine-dining scene is not on the same level as Napa's. The 2016 Michelin Guide lists only two restaurants in Sonoma County with the coveted stars: Terrapin Creek and Farmhouse Inn & Restaurant each have one star. In addition to three stars for Meadowood and the French Laundry, the guide awarded single stars to five other Napa County restaurants. That's a total of 11 stars.
Douglas Keene's Cyrus restaurant in Healdsburg was Healdsburg's premier fine-dining restaurant. It earned two Michelin stars before it closed in 2012, but did not incur the kind of populist criticism leveled at Single Thread.
But Kyle sees Sonoma County's culinary star as rising, particularly in Healdsburg.
"If it wasn't me, it would be someone else. And there may be someone else behind me.
There's so much room here to showcase food at all different levels. I'm excited about the future."