A restaurant story: Incline couple excited for new business now face harsh reality | TahoeDailyTribune.com

A restaurant story: Incline couple excited for new business now face harsh reality

Incline Village restaurant owners Nellie and Jonas Saia are in survival mode like many others at Lake Tahoe.
Rob Galloway / Tahoe Daily Tribune

It has only been a couple weeks since I interviewed Nellie and Jonas Saia for a feature that was to be quite different than the one you’re about to read. In the days that followed, much of what we had discussed had been turned upside down by the recent events sweeping the world.

In light of these events, I can’t tell you that story. It’s not reality anymore. What I can do is start at the beginning, let you into their journey, and take you through where it’s ended up.

Let’s start with the foundation.

The spark for the married owners of Austin’s and Fumo restaurants in Incline Village ignited when both worked at nearby Lone Eagle Grille in 2005. Jonas was bartending on the night shift and as he would leave his shift, he would catch a glimpse of Nellie as she was turning over tables for banquets in the morning.

Jonas joked, “I’d wonder who that cute blonde was.”

After the courtship, the couple married in 2009. They moved to the South Shore for work, purchased a home, and by the time 2014 rolled around, the Saia’s had added two children to their family.

In that year, the two were presented the opportunity to purchase Austin’s restaurant. Jonas, being in real estate, knew first-hand about the opportunity as his brokerage was handling the listing, and eventually, the two pulled the trigger while also moving into a place above the restaurant.

While the couple had about two weeks with the previous owners, it took them about two years before they became comfortable with the operation.

“Those first two years were survival – every day,” said Jonas. “Learning how to do everything, still doing real estate, it was insane.”

“I had a three-month old baby and a two-year old in the restaurant every day,” added Nellie.

As Austin’s was coming into its own, another opportunity presented itself in a neighboring space that was Tomaato’s restaurant. They ended up purchasing that restaurant and building in 2016, changing the name to Fumo in late 2018.

“The main reason we purchased it was for the real estate,” said Jonas. “ We thought we were going to need to move Austin’s because that property was stuck in probate and we didn’t want to lose that investment.”

As of last July that situation had been resolved and the Saia’s found themselves the proud owners of two restaurants, living excitedly in Incline Village, looking forward to a busy summer and rebranding the ice cream shop they started last summer to add coffee and espresso.

If this story were to continue I’d be writing about raising their kids, being involved with the community (Jonas is a Sierra Nevada College alum) and how some misinformation caused rocky relationships at first – and of course, their approach to the cuisine at both restaurants.

But this story doesn’t continue that way. Like many restaurants (and small businesses) in our region, there is fear and unknown about how they will be making it through this.

While it’s been almost six years since they took over Austin’s, the Saia family find themselves in the same familiar territory as those early years: survival mode.

“We don’t know how much longer we can stay open and we don’t know how long we can close if it came down to it,” added Nellie. “Sales have plummeted. Our private lender is making us pay our mortgage. No exceptions.”

And also like many restaurants around the basin, they have had to get creative quickly – adding delivery and curbside service and even becoming an online grocery store.

During our first interview, it was apparent their staff was one of the centerpieces of their business.

“The key is keeping our good employees happy. We have amazing employees,” Nellie said during our first conversation. “If it wasn’t for them we wouldn’t have been able to do all this.”

But in the current reality, they have had to lay off 90% of their staff.

“Our employees mean the world to us so this is the hardest thing we have had to do.”

Not having a steady flow of visitors has been difficult for most all businesses in Tahoe. While there is still much uncertainty, there’s hope that what gets afforded to small businesses and people that have been affected, is able to sustain them through this difficult time.

To an outsider, Tahoe may seem like a place for the ultra-wealthy. But the truth of the matter is that the backbone of Tahoe is supported by hard-working people that want to live and play in a place that’s as beautiful as any other in the world.

I initially asked the question: What do you want people to know about you that they don’t?

Jonas responded, “We’re a struggling family just like everybody else. The restaurant is our passion.”

A passion for something can carry people through the toughest of times — even the current one.

Austin’s and Fumo are both located at 120 Country Club Dr. in Incline Village. Currently Austin’s hours are noon to 8 p.m. and Fumo is 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Both locations are offering delivery and curbside pick up.

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