Pongo’s Kitchen & Tap co-owner Kathleen Rose Stafford is passionate and connected to her community, and the longtime Petaluman has dedicated herself to building an award-winning eatery while also working to advocate for local causes.
Stafford, 45, opened Pongo’s Kitchen & Tap five years ago, combining nearly two decades of experience working at Wells Fargo with skills gained as a Petaluma Chamber of Commerce ambassador, a role with wide-reaching community interaction. She’d also learned marketing at the chamber’s “Business After Hours” events, though starting a restaurant was still a challenge, she said.
“It was a very tough couple years in the beginning,” she said. “We had no budget for advertising, so it was word of mouth and getting our food into as many mouths as we could. I knew if I could get people to taste our deliciousness, they would be back.”
Indeed, the people tasted the Thai-inspired “deliciousness” and enjoyed it so much that the restaurant earned Petaluma People’s Choice Awards in various categories for five consecutive years. Stafford credits the restaurant’s success to the work that goes into building a community at the eatery, which also uses locally-sourced products when possible.
“(It’s) like a modern day ‘Cheers,’ ” she said. “We all know our customers by name, if not at least by their favorite menu item. We try very hard to keep consistently great food on the menu and by also using our Special Board to bring new dishes to our customers. We care about our customers because we consider them to be our friends as well, many of them are our neighbors, or parents of kids that are friends with our sons.”
Stafford has a very special set of challenges, working with her ex-husband and current spouse as well as her teenagers. She said each person brings a different strength to the table, and she most enjoys interacting with patrons.
“I am the people person, who has the pleasure of mingling with our customers, getting to know them and I love getting to suggest things on the menu they might like,” she said.
As a working mother of three young men, Stafford keeps in close contact with other moms in the community.
“Petaluma is great and moms in Petaluma are the best, we commiserate together,” she said. “We know how stressful it is with kids, with work, with life and we have that in common.”
After her own teenage son faced a risky experience with alcohol, marijuana and a prescription anxiety medication at party, Stafford and friend Heather Elliott-Hudson last month formed a group called Petaluma Parents Against Drugs to raise awareness and encourage new initiatives to combat reported abuse of prescription medicines, drugs and alcohol by local youth. The group held a community meeting and appeared at a recent Petaluma City Council meeting, where they lobbied for the restoration of on-site safety resource officers at both Petaluma high schools.
In the future, Stafford said she sees herself blissfully enjoying her family and the rewards from her hard work. But for now, Stafford’s passion is making her mark on the world.
“I have so much passion inside me, and I’m realizing just now in my mid-40s that I have so much to give and am so thankful for God’s blessings,” she said. “It’s not always easy, in fact sometimes it seems downright unmanageable, but nothing in life worth having is easy.”
AT A GLANCE
Name: Kathleen Rose Stafford
Occupation: Co-owner of Pongo’s Kitchen.
Family: Husband Lawrence, 19-year-old son Nick and 16-year-old twin sons Jesse and Tony.
Education: Attended high school in San Rafael, as well as several community colleges.
Hometown: Marin County, been in Petaluma 20 years.
Community service: Petaluma Chamber of Commerce ambassador, school volunteer, youth sports supporter, Petaluma Parents against Drugs.
Awards: Best of Petaluma in several restaurant categories for five years in a row.
Hobbies: Travel, (Tahoe is a favorite) and any outdoor activities.
Book: I just finished rereading “Restaurant Owners for Dummies.”
Favorite Petaluma-area hangout: “I love Pongo’s, we are like a neighborhood hub. We love our area and there’s not ever a time I don’t see someone I know in there.”
Websites: petalumaparentsagainstdrugs.org, pongoskitchen.com