Nicholas Petti started with a beat-up pick up truck and a dream. Sixteen years later, the owner of Mendo Bistro in Fort Bragg, California, seems to have arrived at a fitting juncture in his culinary life. Petti says he had “no collateral” when he secured a $60,000 loan to open the 88-seat American bistro concept on the Mendocino Coast in 1999. The money covered the kitchen, equipment, and even the initial food and beverage items. While things have changed quite a bit over the years, Petti wanted to find a way to retain that humble-start spirit as he transitioned to the next phase of his career. “It was somebody else believing I could do this,” Petti says. “I thought, ‘That’s the kind of person I would like to see take over this restaurant.’”

Petti, now 52 and a tenured professor in the Culinary Arts program at Mendocino College, kept those modest memories in mind when he began plotting ways to transition his restaurant, and its sister venue, BarBelow—a hangout with a full liquor license—to its next owner. After speaking with a friend about an art contest she was hoping to develop, the inspiration struck. Petti would give away the restaurant, as long as someone could display that “creative spark” faithful to his own personal experience. 

The result was a writing contest—250 words and a $100 entry fee to anyone looking to secure a well-established locale with very little startup. The winner is responsible for taxes, lawyer fees, and other fees—numbers Petti says he can’t predict—and is required to operate the restaurant for the completion of its current lease, which runs three more years. Otherwise, the space, from the kitchen to the tables, will be at the new owner’s whim.

“We’re hoping to find somebody who has some creativity, some fire, some talent, and some ability, and a desire to have their own place,” says Petti of the contest, which started August 24 and ends December 20.

Up to 7,500 entries will be judged without bylines, then whittled down to 20 finalists, and lastly examined by a three-person independent panel that will remain a mystery to Petti and his wife, Jaimi Parsons. Structure, creativity, relevant experience, and a clear argument explaining why the candidate is the best option to take over the local restaurant, owned by Ingest Inc., will determine the outcome. Current and former Mendo Bistro and Barbelow employees, as well as their family members, are not eligible.

When Petti unveiled his plan, he had a feeling the response would be mixed. “Most of the people that we’ve talked to face to face have just been like, ‘Wow what a great idea. It seems definitely like something the two of you would do. What a great spirit.’ All of that. But, as I expected, a few crazies have come out of the woodwork.”

Mostly, Petti says people are just curious. Why, and why now? Petti explains that he’s been driven by the quality of his present life as much as his past experiences. He son, Marlon, is 9, and Petti’s plan to step back, teach, and still own the restaurant didn’t free up his schedule the way he first imagined. Given the area’s tourist boom, Petti was busiest in summer months—the same block of time Marlon was free. He was still doing a lot of prep work at Mendo Bistro and filling any role that needed attention.

“The clichés are all true,” Petti says. “Time is fleeting and the time you can spend with your children, you’re never going to get back. I started teaching five years ago with the idea that we would be on the same schedules, and we would be able to do as much stuff together before he doesn’t want to do anything with mom and dad.”

Around a month ago, Petti brought Marlon around the restaurant, taking pictures and deciding what they simply couldn’t let go; a paper cutout of the logo; some paintings that belonged to a departed friend. He admits it’s been a nostalgic run, but Petti says he plans to remain in the area and help the process along if necessary. And, no matter the details, he knows there will be one elated, charmed new owner in the end—a feeling he can surely relate to.

“It’s a very welcoming community. We love having our lives here,” he says. “For so many cooks, Northern California is kind of the dream place to be. We have everything people seem to desire.”

Danny Klein

Chef Profiles, Industry News