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By Shawn Raymundo
Friday, May 1, was supposed to mark the 40th anniversary celebration of Sonny’s Pizza & Pasta.
There were to be bands performing live music, beer and wine flowing, and the restaurant’s spaghetti dish priced at $2.99 a plate—a call back to when Sonny Genovese and his daughter, Julie Ragenovich, first opened the restaurant’s doors in 1980.
“We wanted to thank the community for all their support over all these years,” Ragenovich told San Clemente Times this week.
“We were going to close our parking lot and restaurant for the day . . . thank all the customers and invite them for free music and beer and wine,” she said. “Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening this year.”
Instead, Ragenovich said, the restaurant will carry on as usual—as much as can be—during this unprecedented time, when a global pandemic has hindered economic activity.
“It’s a shame after all these years we can’t celebrate,” Ragenovich said.
Since mid-March, when Gov. Gavin Newsom issued his stay-at-home mandate to encourage social distancing and slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, restaurants have had to operate with limited staff on a takeout- and delivery-only basis.
She said about half of her staff has been able to stay on and continue working at about half their normal working hours.
“We’re just trying to rotate who we have. They’re working at about half the normal income,” Ragenovich said. “It’s been hard, but we’re making ends meet, thanks to the support of the community.”
Though the community has been really supportive by continuing to visit the eatery and tipping staff generously, Ragenovich said the economic hardship is reaching a point where businesses need to be able to reopen.
“This whole virus has just devastated our economy, and we really need to get back to work, slowly and cautiously, but it needs to open,” she said.
Expounding further, Ragenovich said that even when stay-at-home orders are relaxed or lifted, takeout and delivery operations will continue to be a primary means of food service for restaurants, as customers will likely want to continue social distancing.
She added that when restaurants are allowed to offer dine-in services again, Sonny’s will maintain social distancing practices by keeping tables separated and continue curbside pickups on food orders.
“And, of course, obviously, we have taken steps for cleaning purposes, having sanitizer available for customers, (staff) wearing gloves,” she said. “Things like that, to make people feel safe; so our employees are safe, our customers are safe and they feel safe.”
Under normal circumstances, Genovese, much like Ragenovich, would come into the restaurant every day to prep much of the food, including the sauces, pizzas and pastas. But amidst the growing concern over the spread of the virus, Ragenovich said her father has been in isolation and eager to return to work.
“He’s been in isolation for his safety for the past four weeks, which has been extremely hard on him, because he (normally) comes to work every single day,” she said, adding: “I’m sure he’s going to come back very soon. He can’t handle the isolation.”
Ragenovich and Genovese represent generations of restaurateurs. Genovese’s parents first opened a restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard in 1947. Twenty-five years later, they moved to San Clemente, where they opened Ernesto’s Italian Villa in North Beach.
Then in 1980, Genovese, with the help of his daughter, decided to open Sonny’s down the street on El Camino Real, where it’s remained a family-operated establishment and the oldest-running business in San Clemente, Ragenovich said.
“It’s been such a blessing to work alongside of him, because we get along so well,” she gushed. “Usually people, families don’t get along very well or see eye-to-eye, but we get along very well. I’m a lucky daughter.”
For the past 40 years, Sonny’s has been able to grow and earn a reputation as a local favorite, because it’s a place where San Clemente residents and visitors can enjoy home cooking, comfort food, Ragenovich said.
“It’s consistent, the portions are large, the prices are reasonable, it’s a family atmosphere, it’s quaint, it’s charming,” she said. “It’s a totally Southern California, but in Italian home-style cooking.”
While the current health crisis continues to paint an uncertain picture of the future, Ragenovich said she’s hopeful the business will be able to continue growing for future generations.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future with what’s going on, but hopefully we can continue for generations to come; with the same growth and people loving our food,” she said.
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.