Pictured above: Cousins Felicia Ferguson and Luigi Petrone
“Family” holds a special meaning for Italian trattoria Piazza D’Angelo; located in the heart of downtown Mill Valley, California. The homey neighborhood eatery is owned by cousins Luigi Petrone and Felicia Ferguson, whose fathers (Paolo and Domenico Petrone, respectively) founded the establishment thirty-nine years ago after immigrating from Italy to New York, then moving from New York to California.
Make no mistake; ownership of Piazza D’Angelo might be a traditional family affair, but operating the place on a day-to-day basis is an entirely different story. Today, Mill Valley’s go-to place for rustic Italian dining relies on the efforts and patronage of a largely “extended” family. That is, the dedicated staff—many of whom Ferguson says have worked at Piazza D’Angelo for years—and the treasure trove of longtime guests and new visitors that continue to invest in all the restaurant has to offer.
Continuing the Legacy
For Ferguson, there was never any pressure to join the family business. In fact, she spent several years in the retail industry as a Director of Operations for a clothing designer. However, when it came time for her father and uncle to retire, they approached both her and Luigi to see if there was interest in taking the reins. And as it turned out, there was.
“It still comes naturally,” Ferguson says when asked about taking over the business. Growing up, she’d spent every summer working behind the counter, so Piazza D’Angelo was always a significant part of her life. “We have a big Italian family so we really love the Sunday family dinners, and the hosting, and the whole hospitality side of it. So it was just a natural transition and it’s been great.”
Notwithstanding recent circumstances.
Navigating the Pandemic
“This is probably the worst thing in history that the restaurant industry has ever had to experience,” says Ferguson. And she’s right. At this point, many restaurants have closed their shutters with little idea if they’ll be financially capable of ever opening back up.
In Piazza D’Angelo’s case, Ferguson says that an early challenge was operating within a world of unknowns when COVID-19 first hit. As a result, they closed shop out of respect for the safety of their staff and guests. Since then (and with the influx of information over the past several weeks), they’ve been able to implement strict safety guidelines and reopen for takeout and delivery.
Still though, their staff—an integral part of the Piazza D’Angelo family—has suffered, which is all the more upsetting for Ferguson and Petrone.
“Laying off a lot of our staff that have been with us for almost twenty-plus years was extremely challenging, and living this day-to-day of unknowns and not knowing when we’ll be able to open up and fully operate is going to be really hard.”
All for the Family
Despite the struggle, Ferguson and Petrone are taking things one day at a time and remain committed to doing everything they can to help their staff.
While Ferguson doesn’t see things going back to normal in the restaurant industry anytime soon (even when they are allowed to open again), there have been some small victories. They recently were approved for a PPP loan (Paycheck Protection Program), which has allowed them to hire back salaried employees and rotate hourly workers.
And maybe ‘small’ undersells it. It’s a big win because, like many other small business owners, Ferguson hints that the process for applying to these loan programs has been a total nightmare, with information constantly changing on the fly. “We were talking to one loan officer from the SBA that said, ‘Your loan’s been approved for half a million,’ and then the next day she called and said ‘So, I can only give you fifteen thousand.’”
Not to mention that forgiveness protection under a PPP loan is contingent upon normal operations resuming within two months, and a restaurant’s full staff being hired back. Given the current state of the pandemic, that’s not a realistic possibility.
Business-wise, Ferguson extends her gratitude to the community and customer-base that Piazza D’Angelo has been able to accumulate over its thirty-nine years of operation. “We’re in a special place where it’s very community-driven here, so I think a lot of people are looking to support the small businesses.”
Supporting small businesses during this time is something that Ferguson emphasizes can go a long way, “Restaurants are a huge part of the supply chain. It really affects a lot of different businesses when we’re not able to operate and function.”
It’s a domino effect; and while the struggle persists, frequent restaurant goers can help ease the strain on their local businesses.