Grasslands Bakery and Cafe, Sonoita, Arizona: 1996–2010, The End of an Era

Today was the last day the Grasslands Bakery and Cafe was open; as I’ve explained here before, my parents decided earlier this month to close the bakery, mostly because of concerns about my mom’s health.

It was an emotional day, because the few people who came in were really very saddened by the bakery closing; for folks who live in the area, and who appreciate good food made with integrity, it’s a huge loss.

My story of the closing began last weekend, when I drove to Sonoita to get ready for the final “sale”:  my mom had things she wanted to sell from the kitchen, like her Cordon Bleu casseroles, as well as many of her potted cactus plants behind the bar and on the patio.  I’d promised to price things and assemble a sale table to prepare for the closing weekend.

The day before I drove the 50 miles to Sonoita, there’d been a lot of rain and snow in southern Arizona, and the Santa Rita Mountains, from this view en route to the Grasslands, were all white:

Once at the Grasslands,I went behind the bar to get started my pricing project; this is the lovely view behind the bar:

All cactus plants would be for sale (most of them sold BTW); isn’t this a lovely tableau? Aside from the great food, something folks are sure to miss about the Grasslands is the aesthetic:

I stacked up #10 tins of tomatoes, roasted chiles, artichoke hearts and bags of pasta on the bar, and priced everything with stickers: here’s the bar transformed into a sales table:

And here’s the final view:  while working, I remembered that that this very tasteful dining environment was once, in the early 90s, a dive bar called El Vaquero. I went there only once, I took some friends in for a drink; my memories of the place included bright green Astroturf on the floor, a pinball machine and clearly intoxicated patrons snorting coke off of the very bar where I’d just stacked the half-price Cordone Bleu casseroles.  El Vaquero and The Grasslands are night and day. In 1995 when my parents acquired the property it took an intensive amount of work to remodel the place; today, at last 2 long-time customers told me they remember seeing my mom outside back in ’95 with a pick-axe digging the footing for the block wall around the patio. I can remember scraping up the old tile (in retrospect, I hope it didn’t have asbestos in it!) and I can also remember a few painful back sprains from that work.

Anyway, after stacking up the bar, I put price tags on all the potted plants out on the patio, even those with snow on them:

And on those that were snow-free:

So, that was last weekend. This morning, when I came in the back door of the bakery, I thought I heard a different voice inside in the kitchen….and I was right, one of my mom’s (many) younger brothers came to visit on this last day….and he was eating breakfast in the kitchen. Here is my uncle, Thomas Schmidt, with my mom:

I then started to take photos of customers who came in to eat or buy stuff to go and say good-bye; here’s my parents w/Gary Naban and Lori Monti:

And, here’s Chris and Sandy;  I remember first meeting them 15 years ago. Chris washed dishes on weekends for my parents last year and was very helpful to them on busy days; while I’m an amateur weather-geek, he’s an actually employed as a weather geek: Chris, keep up the accurate forecasting!

I got John and Kay Bevan to pose w/my mom in front of all the canned preserves; John and Kay used to come into the Ovens of Patagonia, when my folks owned that place. We’ve known John and Kay for a very long time. After I went to massage school, Kay was one of my very first clients. Thanks you guys for your many years of patronage!

And in yet another farewell pic, here’s Steve and Gabriel in the kitchen w/my mom and dad. I think Steve and Gabriel started coming in after 2001, which is when I moved to Tucson and worked less often at the Grasslands. They asked me why I wasn’t taking over the Grasslands (not knowing all the time I put in the place early on); but the real answer to that is, I’m not my mom, and she’s really the heart and soul of the bakery and is the real reason for its success. I mean, everyone loves my mom; what is there not to love?

I got one last shot of the last brotchen–what I’ll miss most–and the last cookie batter my mom made this afternoon:

In the last hour being open, here are some of our very beloved and long-term local customers–Ernie Hann, Gloria Engle-Hann (an enthusiastic and talented–yes!!–quilter) and Bernice Pomeroy, who taught piano to my brothers Frank and John when they were kids. These 3 folks just have the best vibe. I always enjoyed taking care of them and waiting on them, just lovely people, thanks so much!

Here’s me and my mom and dad, after we closed up and locked the door:

And, finally, here’s my folks with India, who moved to Arizona from Montana last year, and who’s worked for my parents since November; she’s just been a wonderful support and great help in that short time. Plus she’s a new friend! Thanks India.

I know there will be many, many people who will day-trip to Sonoita from Tucson or Phoenix or further afield, expecting to find their favorite bakery open. And they’ll be disappointed, at best; I think a lot of people will be very saddened, even devastated.

Most customers at the Grasslands weren’t locals, they were tourists or from out-of-town. It’s impossible to contact these people and let them know, so they can avoid being inconvenienced. The Grasslands webpage now reflects the closure. But the Grasslands is not hooked into social media platforms; there’s no tweets or Facebook  friends. The pace is old-world.

To all the folks out there who’ve come in over the years, thank you very, very much. The Grasslands was a special place.

15 thoughts on “Grasslands Bakery and Cafe, Sonoita, Arizona: 1996–2010, The End of an Era

  1. hello Claire,

    This is a most poignant tribute to your amazing parents. i’ve never met them, been to Grasslands but wept nonetheless while viewing the photos and reading reading your words.

    Hope to see you in April,

    love from an admiring cousin,
    Nancy

    • I’m so happy you liked this post. You’re family and so even though you haven’t been out here to Arizona, you know the gene pool! I just got an email from an O’Neill up in Newfoundland asking me if I’ll play my fiddle at the reunion this summer; any chance you’ll meet me up there? I’ve got a rental house arranged. I’ll be in touch.

  2. I visited your parents’ cafe many times with my Army friends while training at Ft. Huachuca in 1997 and 2000. I would try to get out there every Sunday morning for breakfast. (A great escape and refuge for a San Franciscan who likes to eat). In March 2009 I returned for a few weeks, walked in the door one Sunday morning, and your father looked up to me and said something to the effect of ‘welcome back Paul’, as if I had I had just been there the week before! I was touched that he remembered me. Such kind, unique, and memorable people your parents are. And, of course, I will miss the great food. Please give them my regards and best wishes.

    I’m writing this during a fit of insomnia. While reminiscing of the past and looking for something positive to read, I came across this. I guess that’s just another positive effect the place, the food, and your parents had on people. All good things must come to an end I suppose.

    Paul

  3. Tom and Monika, I can’t tell you enough how much Chris and I have enjoyed coming to your bakery on weekends when we lived in Sonoita for the last few years. We so enjoyed it and loved it! Remind Monika what I said some time ago…”If there was anything to cure drug addiction it would be Monika Apricot Danish.” We love you guys,

    Maritza V. Encinas-Edwards
    Chris L. Edwards

  4. Clare,

    Thank you for this lovely tribute to a lovely, lovely place and two lovely, lovely people.

    My friend Deb and I drove down to Sonoita one Sunday about 6 weeks ago and experienced just what you described–utter shock (even though we knew it was coming) and–yes–even devastation, at seeing the empty shelves on the patio and the “closed” sign out in front. We were and are SO sad, as driving to Sonoita and Patagonia will just never be the same. Lunch at the Grasslands was always the very heart of every trip I’ve made down there since my friend (and yours, too) Grace Brettholle introduced me to it years ago now. I have introduced it to many friends and family members myself since.

    I just hope that your mom stays well a long time and that both your parents have a wonderful, very well deserved retirement.

    All the best to all of you,

    Lesley

    • Well, you know, probably long before you were ever at the Grasslands, I worked there for many years, from ’95–’01. I’m sure the shock of seeing it closed was profound! I still get sad thinking about it being shut. I’m relieved and happy for my parents, who are in their 70s and shouldn’t be doing that kind of hard labor anymore, but I’m sad sometimes when I think about how it was a real “oasis” of beauty and tranquility. You just can’t find that vibe anywhere, it’s very special. I guess I wish there was just more of that around. How funny you know Grace; please tell her I said hi.

      My folks are doing well, and they’re in good health…in large part due to being able to finally putter around the house and work on their own projects, without having to bake and cook and serve.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts/feelings. 🙂

  5. One thing confuses me–I know I’ve been to Grasslands at least three times this year, 2011, though your blog indicates it closed over a year ago. Maybe you wrote this when they closed for a while before reopening again. Anyway, now it’s really closed, and I’m really sad!

    • Yes, Lesley, you’re right; my first post about the Grasslands closing (back in January 2010) was written at a time when my parents were convinced they were closing the bakery/restaurant. My mom had some health concerns. But it was clear after about 6 months they just couldn’t afford to not work. So, they re-opened!

  6. We are from Canada and talked to your parents about Gabriola Island in BC. We visited Grasslands every year with other Canadian friends. Really enjoyed the atmosphere, the meals and always stocked up on deserts to take back to Tucson. Were disappointed to see it closed this year, but there is a limit to one’s energy as we age. Best of times in the future.

    • Thanks for sharing your memories; the Grasslands was a special place and I’m happy you liked it so much. I’ll pass on your message to my folks. Yes, there is indeed a limit to the energy. 🙂

  7. February 17th, 2012

    I was able to meet your Mom and Dad up on Wasson Peak, yesterday, February 16th, 2012, and I am so thankful that our paths crossed up there on that beautiful day….I am blessed to have met them.

    Your Mom shared a generous piece of delicious “Sun Food” with me which gave me energy for the whole rest of the hiking day, and your Dad gave me the most delicious orange juicy slices I have ever had in my life. Your Dad confided that they come from his daughter’s orange tree, most likely yours. I told him you have a “gold mine” in that tree! ….and, in your parents…

    Both of them were very kind to share with me…I had only brought water/tea with me for this hike. The “Sun Food” and awesome orange slices will never be forgotten…..needless to say, neither will your parents. I hope to be able to purchase “Sun Food” and orange marmalade jam made from your orange tree by your Mom on line when the site is set up.

    Also, your Mom mentioned she will soon be writing a Cookbook. I can hardly wait to buy one!

    I know healthy food when I taste it…and I know unique, special people when I meet them!

    Thank you for sharing the memorable photos and documentation of your Bakery closing. I feel a part of it without being physically there….

    Thank you & Continued Success & Happy Health!

    LaVonne

    • My folks called me after that hike and told me about it; the trail is just full of wildflowers now, I just posted about it last week. How lovely for you to have met my parents on the mountaintop. The views are terrific, aren’t they? We all miss the Grasslands; but there’s just only so long you can work.

      Thanks for sharing your memories and experiences. 🙂

  8. So sad to hear that the Grasslands has closed. We have been coming from Toronto to Tucson to escape our Canadian winter and have always made a trip to the restaurant and to chat with your parents. We’d stock up and breads and delicious pies and cakes. I would always end up chatting to your mom about our shared World War II experiences of fleeing from the advacing Red Army as it entered East Prussia.

    My wife and I will miss the great food and the two lovely people who were the Grasslands.

    We wish Monica and Tom an enjoyable retirement.

    Thank you very much for posting this information on the website.

    Sig and Suzan

    • Thanks for your kind words. I’m sure my folks remember you and I’ll let them know you posted here. My mom always remembers the folks who had shared stories of post-war Europe. And a Canadian winter is something to escape from; but if it weren’t so cold there more people would want to live there. I miss going to the Grasslands, too, but I’m thankful my folks were able to close the place; at their age, it’s just too hard to do that work any more.

      Take care and thanks again.

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