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The story behind Petaluma’s most famous cheesecakes

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A timeline of Jan Rosen’s delicious creations:

1976 - Salad Mill, Petaluma

1978 - Salad Mill, Napa

1983 - J.M. Rosen’s, Santa Rosa

1983 - Creation of J.M. Rosen Cheesecakes

1998 - J.M. Rosen Cheesecake Etc., Village of Corte Madera

1996 - J.M. Rosen Waterfront Grill, Petaluma

2001 - Rosen’s Eastside Grill, Petaluma

2017 - 256 North, Petaluma

If you've been in Petaluma for any length of time and love good food, you may have visited 256 North, the 5-year-old restaurant along Petaluma Boulevard run by longtime Petaluma restaurateur Jan Rosen.

However, did you know why Rosen came to Petaluma at age 20, after growing up in Long Island, New York? How she became well-known at a time when women restaurant owners were few and far between? Or the names of her most famous cheesecake fans?

Surprisingly, Jan has never told "her story" before. However, since many customers and friends are asking her to do so she has concluded that now is the time.

Rosen is among a small group of pioneering women restaurant owners in the U.S. She moved from her native Long Island, New York, to Petaluma in the mid-1970s. Her father had recently moved to California to work for his brother at the geysers in Calistoga. Previously, he had worked as a truck driver.

After high school, Rosen went to Nassau Community College in New York and studied business management, financing some of her college expenses by working at Harry's Charcoal Burger & Donuts in Hicksville, Long Island, in 1971.

She became hooked on the restaurant business. Before she moved to California, the boss offered her a partnership so she wouldn't move. But Jan knew what she wanted, and determined to go full-throttle for her dream: opening her own restaurants.

Her first California restaurant job was at Straw Hat Pizza, for $1.65 an hour. Her first business was the Salad Mill, which served mostly salads, soups and sandwiches by the Petaluma River, where the Chamber of Commerce is now. Two years later, she got a franchise to open a Salad Mill in Napa. That restaurant also turned out to be very popular with local customers.

Rosen was flying high in these new business ventures, relying strictly on her own faith in herself, and in her strong intuition that she could be a success.

"My philosophy was, if you want to be a success in business, believe in your instincts and steamroll over any no's you get,“ Rosen said.

The cheesecake

Another famous facet of Jan's cooking prowess are her unique J.M. Rosen's New York cheesecakes. In addition to the standard favorite cheesecake, there are flavors such as lemon curd, chocolate chip and chocolate mousse. Since being developed in 1983, the cakes are delivered in 12 U.S. states, but are not exported to other countries.

Visitors to 256 will soon notice one entire wall on the left side of the big room. It is dedicated to Frank Sinatra, with several photos of him (one as a teenager, in a mug shot with a numbered badge), and a couple of portraits. Several of the photos have handwritten tributes to Jan from Sinatra about her delicious cheesecakes. Once he found out about them, he was a lifelong customer.

Rosen met Sinatra and his cronies at a get-together in L.A., in 1984 -- through his assistant Dorothy. The singer Sylvia Sims also became a friend. One Sunday night at the famous Chasen's Restaurant in Beverly Hills, Jan's cheesecake was the subject of a big discussion at one of the tables. Both couples liked it so much, they told the manager it was the best they had ever eaten. Who were the couples?

The Sinatras, and the Reagans.

256 North

She leased her current restaurant-bar space, 8,500 square feet, five years ago. Then it took a year to rebuild the place to her vision, until it "felt right." Rosen has only good words for her landlord, who has always been "patient, humorous, generous, caring -- and considerate of my wishes."

She adds, "Yes, we had to close for months during the pandemic, but...we're still here! I am so grateful to my regular customers, who supported and encouraged us during that unimaginably difficult time."

256 North now employs 25 people, from kitchen and bar staff to waiters. Although there are still renovations in the works (the balcony that runs around the huge first floor), 256 is open Tuesday through Saturday, from 12-10 p.m. The lunch and dinner menu includes seafood, meat, veggies, salads, and yummy desserts (including Jan's cheesecakes). The full bar is the largest in Sonoma County.

More information

A timeline of Jan Rosen’s delicious creations:

1976 - Salad Mill, Petaluma

1978 - Salad Mill, Napa

1983 - J.M. Rosen’s, Santa Rosa

1983 - Creation of J.M. Rosen Cheesecakes

1998 - J.M. Rosen Cheesecake Etc., Village of Corte Madera

1996 - J.M. Rosen Waterfront Grill, Petaluma

2001 - Rosen’s Eastside Grill, Petaluma

2017 - 256 North, Petaluma

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