Vernon & Charlene, Take Two
by Bruce Anderson, December 14, 2016
The Mail Tribune, an Oregon newspaper, published a long story last week on Vernon and Charlene Rollins. The Rollins’ are retiring after a presumably lucratively long run as proprietors of a famous restaurant just north of Ashland called Sammy’s Cowboy Bistro.
The back story...
When Vernon and Charlene Rollins fled Boonville and their New Boonville Hotel in 1987, driving off in the middle of the night owing lots of people lots of money, it was probably the only way they could have escaped with some hope and a little cash for their future.
With a boy child on the way, the Rollins' had become victims of their grand dreams of a country inn built around fine food. They got about a third of the way to their Yankee vision of a rural French inn in downmarket Boonville before their numerous creditors, and the state's famously arbitrary labor office, made it impossible for the Rollins' to stay in business.
There were creditors and then there were creditors. The Rollins’ had not only stolen from wealthy Bay Area investors, they stole from their un-wealthy staff, all Boonville people, by pocketing their employee withholdings. They also borrowed money from their employees — Tom Cronquist got ripped off for many thousands of dollars — and they persuaded staffers to work hundreds of hours of unpaid overtime.
One might have expected the Rollins’ to have made good on all this theft when their Oregon restaurant became nationally famous and quite prosperous, but that’s not what has happened.
The Rollins’ ran from Boonville in the dead of night, their small army of creditors were left holding bottomless bags. If the larcenous couple had tried to carry on Boonville the state would have closed them down for unfair labor practices, and they would then have faced the small army of creditors besieging them with no income to pay so much as a dime on the dollar. The Rollins’, operating a high end restaurant in what amounted to an old building under perpetual construction, never had the money to do everything they tried to do all at once in the aged structure. It was Johnny Schmitt who eventually came in and did the physical rehab of the Hotel’s 19th century premises.
Before they got in so deep, Vernon and Charlene did accomplish a kind of miracle. Their food was so good, the gardens by the landscape geniuses Chris and Stephanie Tebbutt so spectacular, the bar so pleasant, the dining area so beguiling, that the national gastro-posse was soon saddled up and riding hard for “remote” Boonville, two hours and twenty minutes from downtown San Francisco.
Not that outside attention in the ineffable world of wine and food means much of anything to people outside it, but the Rollins' deserved every inch of praise they got even if most of it was buried in hype.
One hilariously straight-faced review said the food was “amazingly fresh because it comes straight from the animal pen out back."
The fresh meat out back was a kind of Potemkin supply, a bedraggled petting zoo consisting of a few random-breed chickens, a sclerotic turkey, a pet pig, and several cats, none of which ever got into the ragout, and you had to wonder even if they had would any of the foodies have noticed? Most of the Hotel's food began life in the Anderson Valley Market across the street, although the Rollins’ did buy what they could from local farmers which, conceptually at least, was a way for a few local producers to pick up a few dollars.
When people with money began showing up to eat at the Rollins' New Boonville Hotel, a lot of them noticed that land prices in the Anderson Valley were much lower than they were in the gilded provinces they came from, and a real estate boom commenced which, at the higher income levels, continues to this day. Working people were priced out and the three-million-dollar men moved in — a mil for the twenty acres and the over-large house, another mil for ten acres of grapes with Three Mil's florid face on the label, the third mil to live on. (To buy in these days, you'd need a lot more than $3 mil.)
The Rollins had fled Boonville in an escape vehicle belonging to David and Micki Colfax, which the Colfaxes traded to the Rollins' in exchange for help-yourself access to the Hotel's wine cellar and art collection. After the Colfaxes' had plundered the good stuff, the Hotel sat unguarded for a couple of months, the wine cellar nightly pillaged by local teenagers. But for the first 48 hours nobody but the Colfaxes knew where the Rollins had gone, or even if they were gone.
During the night hours of those first, confused two days, the Colfaxes were ferrying booze, books and art up to their homestead on Redwood Ridge west of Boonville while the Rollins’ headed north on I-5 for the Oregon state line, their Colfax-provided get away car stuffed with the remnants of their lost lives in Boonville.
(Full disclosure: Colfax magnanimously gave me a couple of pieces of Hotel art that he didn't want. I've still got them, and Colfax, a pot farmer in those days, went on to such an elected eminence as a supervisor that he no longer needs to rob abandoned hotels.)
While the money buzzards picked over the abandoned Hotel's carcass, it's probably a minor miracle the building didn't fall to the traditional means of exiting the restaurant business in Mendocino County — arson. Fort Bragg, also in '87, lost its venerable Piedmont Hotel, its library and justice court in one big night of unprosecuted fires when a nexus of restaurant owners, cocaine cowboys and crooked bankers went to war. If the Rollins' had torched the Boonville Hotel to pull themselves out of the red we would have lost the only public building the Valley has that goes all the way back to the Indian killers.
And it's a building of real historic significance: Jack and Charmian London stayed there, as did Frank James, brother of Jesse, born and raised in Confederate Missouri. Lots of contemporary luminaries have stayed at the Hotel since, none of them as splendid as Jack and Frank.
Today, the Boonville Hotel, revived by the Schmitt Family, is still the thriving landmark it has always been, and Vernon and Charlene Rollins are retiring from the second nationally famous restaurant they created near Ashland, just out of reach of their California creditors.
Susan Bridge-Mount notes: “Interesting blast from the past on Vernon and Charlene’s screwing of our local community and the folks who worked for them. I was one of them and worked during the summers as a bartender and later a waitperson. Vernon was diligent in withdrawing all of the payroll taxes that he was allowed to. Eventually, those of us who saw our Social Security print outs were shocked to see that during the years we worked for the Rollins’ no taxes were taken from our paychecks. Didn’t take long to figure out Vernon pocketed that money from everyone who worked at the hotel. Both Vernon and Charlene pulled off a huge scam on our community, as well as the ‘foodies’ who drove for hours to eat a meal that the staff were told to keep up the myth that all of the produce and chicken was grown locally. In reality, trucks from afar delivered the ingredients. Cats in the kitchen – waiters served patrons home baked bread from bread baskets that were also the homes of the many kitchen cats. The deal was to toss the cats out of the baskets, shake out the napkin and put the bread in it and serve. Seduced by tasty food? Yes. Manipulated and criminally ripped off by scammers? YES.”