Community Connections: Brunch in the time of Covid
INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — Shane Hammett, owner of the Sage Leaf in Incline Village, believes that everything happens for a reason. It’s that belief that carried him through the planning and opening of a new restaurant – right smack dab in the middle of a worldwide pandemic.
Leading up to the opening on June 4 in the old Jack Rabbit Moon location, Hammett had worked at the nearby Lone Eagle Grill since 2012, leaving his post as chef de cuisine to start this new adventure.
“For a long time Lone Eagle Grill was a perfect fit for me and my lifestyle,” Hammett says. “As the relationship with my wife (Lara) and our beautiful daughter (Noel) developed, time with the family became more important.”
Shane met his wife while working together at Napa Valley Grille in Yountville in 2007. And although they hadn’t worked directly together since then, Hammett says it was nice to go through this process with her — especially since they share the same work ethic.
In going through the restaurant concept they looked at ways to have balance as a family and maintain the things that are important to them. For Hammett, it also meant staying true to his passion.
“If you want to be successful as a chef, you have to be there,” he said. “There’s no two ways around it. I love having a job I’m passionate about. I love cooking and interacting with people, but how do we facilitate that where I can still be home for dinner?”
The Hammetts looked at everything from food trucks to buying existing businesses, but in the end decided that something that was theirs from the start would be best.
For the concept, focusing on breakfast and lunch would not only provide the family time they were looking for, but it also was an opportunity that Hammett felt was needed — especially with the closing of the Wildflower Café in late 2018.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s breakfast, fine dining or something in the middle,” he said. “It’s about putting in the time and doing the best you can with good ingredients and not charging an arm and a leg.”
With the idea in place and the lease for the location signed in February they were all in. One week after Hammett notified Lone Eagle Grill that he would be leaving by summer, he was furloughed as the effects of COVID-19 rippled through Tahoe.
At that time nobody knew how things were going to play out; much less if the opening of a new restaurant when visitors were discouraged from traveling and only able to provide delivery and takeout, was a good idea. But Hammett decided to look at this as a blessing in disguise.
“Quarantine gave me time to really focus on this and not worry about anything else,” he said. “We didn’t know at which point we could open or how far it would lead into summer but we had to have faith and know it will make a difference in the community. It became a mental game to not focus on things we couldn’t control but focus on the things we could.”
The approach paid off. While they hoped to open in May, the health inspector was backlogged with COVID-19 issues pushing their opening to the beginning of June. Even though they opened with about half the seats they thought they would, and under new restrictions for all restaurants, Hammett believes that in hindsight the softer opening made things more manageable from an operational standpoint.
Hammett was also able to lend a hand to his community. With rooted relationships already established with local farmers, ranchers and nonprofits, Hammett used those relationships to help provide donations to the Tahoe Food Hub’s giving boxes.
“We love the lifestyle in Tahoe,” Hammett added. “It’s about the people, pace of life, and respect for people and the environment. I don’t want to live in a city where nobody will look me in the eye and say hello. I enjoy going for a walk in my neighborhood and knowing the people in it. It’s where I want to raise my family.”
Hammett’s goal for the restaurant is to be a place where people who live there year round can come and know they can get great food. His inspiration for the items on the menu: simply things that he would want to eat.
As for opening in the midst of a pandemic, what’s the thing that’s most concerning moving forward?
“The biggest challenge is the unknown,” he said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen next week or the week after that.”
Fortunately for Hammett, he has the benefit of opening up a restaurant with a team he knows and trusts, having worked with everyone previously.
“Cooking at a restaurant is a team sport – by no means is it a reflection of just the chef or owner – it’s a reflection of everybody involved,” he said. “The goal is to not get complacent, not get lazy, and not to mail it in because that can, unfortunately, happen in this business.”
Hammett says the feedback from the local community has been humbling. While he assuredly knows running a restaurant is hard work, he also knows that his experience and relationships happened to him for a reason — to prepare him for this exact opportunity.
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