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Tourists Are Long Gone, But This California Mountain Restaurant Continues to Feed Small-Town Locals

A scary COVID-19 encounter, a restaurant on the brink, and a community in need in tiny Wrightwood, CA

A woodsy fake log cabin stands as a restaurant surrounded by pine trees.
Grizzly Cafe in Wrightwood
Grizzly Cafe

“It was like the light switch turned off,” says Leo Hordyk, owner of the Grizzly Cafe in Wrightwood, California. The 17-year-old restaurant sits in a mountainous pocket of San Bernardino County, hugging the Angeles Crest Highway an hour northeast of Los Angeles. Hordyk says that with the statewide Safer at Home mandate, he has lost 62 percent of his restaurant’s sales, basically overnight. There is no dining room and no tourism these days, save for the occasional passerby eager to take a quiet drive during the ongoing California coronavirus lockdown. But things could be worse.

Last month, Hodyk and his wife Deb were among the 2,700 passengers aboard the Ruby Princess cruise liner, which departed from Australia on March 8 en route to New Zealand. Three passengers and one crew member came down with flu-like symptoms, later determined to be COVID-19, and the trip was cut short, returning to Sydney on March 19. During the return leg, many passengers, including the Hordyks, were held in relative isolation in their small cabins, but given little real time information about the seriousness of the spreading novel coronavirus on board. Some 600 people ultimately fell ill, and 15 have since died.

“It’s unbelievable that we even got home,” says Hodyk. He, his wife, and thousands of other passengers disembarked and were allowed to fly back to their countries of origin, potentially (and unknowingly) infecting thousands more on the way. Multiple governments are considering legal action against the cruise ship’s parent company Carnival. “We are now suffering the consequences of cases here in New Zealand as a result of that cruise ship,” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said.

Back in Wrightwood, the Hodyks self-quarantined for two weeks, emerging symptom-free to a dramatically different restaurant and travel landscape. A new fight began. “It’s a small community,” Hordyk says by phone of his tiny hometown of thirty-plus years. There are fewer than 4,500 residents nestled into Wrightwood, hugging the sky at 6,000 feet above sea level. Without access to out-of-town dollars thanks to mandated travel limitations and a shutdown of non-essential businesses, times at the Grizzly Cafe are lean. “We depend on tourism here. When the light switch happened, people stayed home.”

At its wintertime peak, Wrightwood balloons into a destination for Southern California skiers and snow-bound families. They flock to Mountain High with lift tickets in tow, or wind their way back the 80-plus miles towards Pasadena along the Angeles Crest for views of snowy peaks and distant ocean. It’s a busy place in the summer too, with campers and motorcycle groups and Pacific Crest Trail through-hikers, all stopping in for a hot meal at one of the town’s five restaurants. On weekend mornings, the brunch wait at the Grizzly Cafe can often stretch to an hour or more.

But now, even with a surprise early April snowfall and wide open spaces, there are few people on the mountaintop. “There’s a lot of older folks that can’t get out,” says Hodyk.

In order to adapt and to keep as much physical distance as possible, Grizzly Cafe transformed itself into a contactless pickup restaurant, where mostly locals queue up in the parking lot in their cars as they wait for a hot meal to be passed through a window at the front of the faux log cabin building. The meal, bagged and ready, hits an outdoor table where it can then be collected, as the workers inside retreat to cook, prep, and sell more. Hordyk says that he has not laid off a single one of his two dozen employees, though everyone’s hours have been reduced, and some of his grandchildren are no longer taking shifts in order to make space for those who need the work.

The comfort food menu, at least, is still going strong. It still serves breakfast all day long, and dinnertime options range from loaded potato skins to sandwiches, burgers, and two pork chops for $18. Hordyk posts new items and updates daily to the restaurant’s small Instagram account, adding the names of working staff members to each image caption. It’s important to keep a personal face, Hordyk notes, because it lets diners know that they’re supporting real people during this pandemic. One day it might be Roxie on the phone, the next it might be Amanda or Jenny.

Grizzly Cafe is in a better position to weather the current coronavirus storm than many other businesses in Southern California. The Hordyks own the land and built the restaurant themselves in 2003, so there’s no rent to pay. There are no guarantees, though, and with California’s Safer at Home mandate likely pushing into May or even into the usually busy summer season, running on a third of the Grizzly Cafe’s previous revenue won’t be viable forever.

Still, Hordyk knows all too well the importance of staying safe right now. “We saw firsthand on that cruise ship, that it was like a petri dish,” says Hordyk. “And now America is just like that.” It’s all a balancing act, between staying in business, staying healthy, keeping a paycheck in the hands of employees who need the money, and feeding hot meals to the tiny mountain community that he loves. “We have to be safe, we have to be smart,” he says, before adding solemnly, “And we have to stay home if we can.”

Grizzly Cafe is open daily in Wrightwood from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. 1455 CA-2, Wrightwood, CA, 92397. (760) 249-6733.

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