First-time restaurateurs jump on chance to become fixture in downtown Chico
If married couple Michael Lee and Sarah Schlobohm and their business partner, Mahina Gannet, were going to open a restaurant in Chico as they envisioned, it had to be downtown. That was a must.
“Michael and I gravitate downtown,” Schlobohm said. “When we say Chico’s our home, we mean downtown.”
In February, the partners told a restaurant real estate agent they were ready to wait for what they wanted—a brick-and-mortar space that’s already housed a restaurant, somewhere small with a kitchen and a beer and wine license available for purchase. They assumed it would take at least two years before such a place came on the market.
They heard back from the agent after two weeks.
“It was like, ‘Here it is, in your lap,’” Schlobohm said. “It was an opportunity we couldn’t miss.”
So they pulled the trigger. The partners recently secured financing, hope to close escrow by the end of July and predict they’ll serve their first customer sometime in September.
During a recent interview, the couple outlined their vision for Momona Noodle + Bao, a Hawaiian-influenced counter-service restaurant in the space on Third Street now occupied by Spice Creek Café, whose owners, chef Rebecca Stewart and husband Brian Diendorf, decided to sell the place (the restaurant’s last day is June 27).
Momona’s menu will be basic at first, mostly ramen noodles, fried rice dishes and bao, a steamed bun common in Asian cuisine, but the plan is to expand the offerings after working out the logistical kinks of running a restaurant.
Gannet is currently on tour as production manager for indie rock band Death Cab for Cutie, but will leave that job at the end of summer to open Momona. Both she and Noah Mansfield, who will serve as co-executive chef, have lived in Hawaii and heavily influenced the menu—and the restaurant’s name.
“‘Momona,’ in Hawaiian, means well-fed, fertile, ripe,” said Schlobohm. “Fat in a positive way. In Hawaiian culture, fat’s a good thing. We like that idea of well-fed.
“But the idea is to not get pigeon-holed into just Hawaiian food,” she continued. “Hawaiian culture, and Chico culture, is a mix of a lot of things. We’re taking these traditional things and doing them in a way we think people in Chico will appreciate.”
The food was well-received during a “pop-up” event in Gannet’s backyard last month, intended both to introduce Momona to the community and serve as an operational trial run. The event was a valuable glimpse at how the restaurant will function.
“It helps you know what you can realistically put on a menu and how fast you can make it,” Schlobohm said.
Schlobohm and Lee believe that, along with Gannet, they’ve assembled a strong ownership team. Lee’s background in financial consulting will lend itself to running the business, Schlobohm’s work as executive chef at Grana will transfer to the kitchen at Momona, and Gannet has outlined the vision for the dining area.
“We’ve found the three of us have opposite strengths,” Schlobohm said, “and it’s all rolled together perfectly.”