Locally owned Petaluma diner serves up feel-good story

The sandwich board in front of Hallie’s Diner on Keller Street in Petaluma still proclaims, “We will get through this together.”

Hallie’s owner, Jen Cromwell, proudly says, “And we did.”

For Cromwell, “we” could have referred to her staff of 13 whom she lovingly refers to as “family,” or Hallie’s regulars, who occupy their usual booths, chat up staff as part of the “counter gang” or even help the restaurant with patio additions.

Cromwell has worked at Hallie’s Diner for a total of 24 years – 20 of those years as a server, until 2017, when she bought the restaurant from the previous owners with help from her parents.

Throughout the harrowing, uncertain months of the pandemic, she told herself she couldn’t give up on keeping Hallie’s open – somehow. She said she always believed that things would inevitably turn around.

The pandemic sent unemployment skyrocketing in Sonoma County, reaching 14.5%, an 80-year high, by late April 2020. Despite the economic impacts that hit hardest among hospitality, food service and other service-oriented businesses, Cromwell said she was determined to ensure that Hallie’s Diner staff members were able to pay their rent and buy food for their families.

Cromwell was able to leverage a federal payroll loan to ensure she never had to lay off any of her staff, although at the beginning of the pandemic, she had to cut back some workers’ schedules to three days per week. Although Hallie’s never closed on the weekends, the restaurant did limit its hours for a time.

Cromwell made it a point to mention all her staff members for this article, listing them by name: cooks Jesus, Emilio, Jose (Pica); prep cooks Tony and Mariela; dishwasher Ranulfo; and servers Karen, Juan, Kelly, Laura, Lora, Stephanie, and Jen.

Like most local restaurants, Hallie’s was a reluctant participant in the open-closed dance throughout the pandemic, which featured at least six major decisions from state and county leaders – the final, welcome reprieve came March 14, when indoor dining was allowed to resume countywide.

Cromwell said she never once embraced the idea that she might succumb to the impacts of the pandemic. Although she did acknowledge there were scary moments.

“There were many sleepless nights when I knew I would have to create an outdoor dining space,” She said. “I had to brainstorm with friends and relatives how we were going to get through this.”

She relied on the support of her staff and her loyal customers.

“Petaluma is such a beautiful place, with warm and caring people,” she said. “This experience proved what they’re made of.”

Her cousin Genene Pedrotti, too, was “a tremendous help and source of encouragement” during the pandemic.

“Within 24 hours of my deciding we needed an outdoor space, Genene had gotten the nine tables, the chairs, the tablecloths, and the heating units. Aunt Ginny Pedrotti cut the tablecloths. By 8 a.m. the next morning, we were ready for our customers.”

Cromwell calls the nine card tables at Hallie’s outdoor space “the garden,” a nod to the many oak barrels planted with petunias, pink daisies, jade, shamrock, and assorted succulents. Under the protection of a sturdy gazebo – set up with the help of friends and a handful of customers – and three large heat lamps, tables at “the garden” fill up quickly every day.

Reflecting on the past 17 months, Cromwell had one final thought:

“Thank you to this fabulous community for all their love and support. It truly touched my heart. We all did it together, and I thank you.”

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