November 25, 2014 – After years of planning, permitting and restoration, the wait is almost over. Emily Thomas, the woman behind Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing, is ready to unveil her latest creation—the beer-focused Cremer House restaurant in Felton. The visionary project, arguably the biggest thing to hit town in decades, was conceived and carried out with extreme attention to flavor, local sourcing and historical detail and is set to open in early December.
“This experience has definitely changed me,” says Thomas. “I compare it to being pregnant for four years. Now I’m ready to share it with the world and watch it grow.”
Built in 1874 by Thomas Cremer, the building is the oldest in downtown Felton and is owned by Bob Locatelli, who also owns the New Leaf Market next door. The historic property sat empty for years as Thomas kept her eye on it and her life full with the brewery. But in 2010, she submitted a proposal to Bob and over the next four years they kept in touch, hatching the plan that is now about to come to fruition.
Their shared vision of preserving and celebrating the historic building is deeply apparent in every detail, from the 18th century barn wood used to build the main bar to the vintage light fixtures. There are beer bottle lanterns outside and archival photos printed on the menu and adorning the walls. What has not been handcrafted or foraged—like the madrone cutting boards from Bob’s ranch—has been hunted out at flea markets and antique stores for unique touches that complete the space.
Cremer House’s location in the San Lorenzo Valley, where food destinations are scarce, is no small factor. It also happens to be where Thomas grew up. “I’ve always loved the San Lorenzo Valley and always wanted to do something here. When I moved back from San Diego, I felt there was a big void in terms of food and beer,” Thomas explains. So she started with the beer, opening SCMB with co-owner Chad Brill. She had originally wanted to open the brewery in the San Lorenzo Valley as well, but because everything is run on septic systems the idea just wasn’t feasible.
After establishing the brewery on the Westside of Santa Cruz and becoming one of the pioneers of our flourishing local craft beer scene, she turned her attention to food.
Emily grew up in the kitchen, with a caterer for a Mom. She always had restaurant jobs, which were second nature to someone who was so used to being around the business, and then the process of opening the brewery “was like a gateway to having my own restaurant,” she reflects.
The Cremer House menu is Thomas’ creation. She developed each dish and invented a “vessel-based” concept to serve different sized portions according to whether the menu item is ordered on a platter, bowl, basket or jar, etc.
She didn’t want the place to be chef-driven, instead opting to develop the food offerings herself to suit a variety of palates and preferences. The search for a chef has its ups and downs, with two applicants coming very close but not quite finding the right fit. Ironically, Gabe Luboff showed up to apply for another position thinking that a chef had already been hired. He also happened to be a friend of Emily’s sister and someone who grew up in the area. It quickly became obvious that his past fine dining experience in Los Angeles (Hatfield’s and Josie’s) and most recently as sous chef and kitchen manager at Oak & Rye in Los Gatos sealed the deal and he got the gig.
Chef Gabe has been pretty busy lately to say the least, but Thomas says “the best part of my days are the times that I get to spend in the kitchen, collaborating with him on recipes and watching my ideas presented beautifully on a plate.” Coming onboard as the Cremer House chef and working with an owner who is so involved with the menu meant that “he has had to learn all my recipes,” she says, “but I think as we move forward then his creativity will come out, too.”
As a San Lorenzo Valley resident myself, I can honestly say that I have been anxious for this place to open from the very first whisper about it. We don’t go out much up here, but I have a feeling that in the new year we may see a lot of Cremer House transactions on our bank statement. I’ll be one of the first in line on opening night to say the least. But although they have worked hard at showcasing the outdoor seating areas on the wide wrap-around porch, it’s still a pretty small restaurant and there are only 70 seats. Emily anticipates some wait time for the first couple of months, so even if you take your time planning that first visit, she reassures us that, “We’re not going anywhere!”
With people thirsting for more information, Thomas graciously responded to a few more questions from EMB’s Elizabeth Limbach. We wish Thomas and Cremer House the best of success on the new venture.
EMB: Can you give a few examples of menu items?
Emily Thomas: We are working to create a menu that pleases everyone, with an emphasis on vegetarian and vegan recipes. Without being pedantic, we love vegetables and want to feature them all over our menu. The first thing we did when we received our health permit was to hit the farmers’ market and load up on vegetables for pickling: Tokyo turnips, baby carrots, wax beans, brussel sprouts, beets…the bounty of the fall.
Hopcorn is fun, popcorn with hop infused oil, rosemary, and Romano cheese. Salty, herbal, rich. Perfect with beer.
We also came up with a pretty amazing sprouted wheat berry salad with beets and avocado and Meyer lemon dressing. It is a deconstructed salad where each component should be tasted individually but the salad is best when mixed and the flavors marry.
Our burgers are also amazing. Chef Gabe Luboff loves burgers and his burger is featured on our menu. He grinds his own cuts each day. The burger has aged cheddar, pickled jalapenos, double smoked bacon and our own aioli. We make aioli all the time and all kinds of flavors. Our vegetarian burger is also spectacular and we came up with it on one of the occasions when we were messing around in the kitchen. Curried red lentil burger with yogurt raita, mint cilantro chutney and mango chutney. It’s pretty amazing.
We have a huge menu with innovative recipes and down home traditional favorites like baked macaroni and cheese and fried chicken. We’re really looking forward to getting this menu under our belt so that we can start playing with specials and changing featured dishes.
We will also be selling our house “hen-sauce” made by our “Pickle Girl” Emily Eder. Emily has lived and worked at Camp Joy for the past two years and now works full time at The Cremer House, pickling and making our hot sauces, mustards, chutneys and chèvre. Her hen-sauce—sriracha in style—gets great flavor from the peppers at Meder Street Farm and will be available to purchase to take home.
EMB: Where will the food primarily be sourced from?
Emily Thomas: We are super lucky to have the resources of Felton New Leaf and the twenty years of produce buying expertise of Bert. Almost anything we want he can tell us what farm has it (and usually the story of the farm and farmers). He’s made his life about knowing everyone in the local organic farm movement and we benefit from it. Persimmons from Camp Joy, sun-dried tomatoes from Sea Level, anything and everything from Lindencroft, brussel sprouts from Rodoni, Happy Boy, Everett, you name it. I couldn’t open a restaurant without getting some meat from my buddy Chris at El Salchichero. Our meat board features his charcuterie and we will feature his smoked pork chop and his Pear Thyme Sausage.
Probably our coolest local outreach is in our draft wine selection. Only a couple of the local wineries have their wine available in kegs but we really wanted to feature Santa Cruz and the Santa Cruz Mountains in an innovative way, so we offered a keg program to local wineries. We bought extra kegs and Chad Brill (co-owner of SCMB) has been going around to local wineries filling kegs for the restaurant. It gives wineries like Beauregard, Odonata, and Zayante the opportunity to take part in our program without having to commit to the expense of keg filling/packaging and it brings some great wines to our customers at a reasonable price.
EMB: I heard that you built a full bakery. Who is running it? What will you make and is it correct that baked goods will also be sold at New Leaf?
Emily Thomas: Felton New Leaf has built a full bakery called Sunflour Bakehouse. They are amazing. Bread tasting has been about the only thing keeping me alive these past two weeks. Rustic hand shaped breads will be featured on our menu and with all of our sandwiches. As well, they made us a custom burger bun—a challah-style bun with sesame seeds. On top of it, they have some great pastry and dessert chefs in their baking program so we are collaborating on our desserts as well. Apple cider donuts, gallettes, and a rich flourless chocolate cake…good stuff. Their baked goods will be available at the Felton and Boulder Creek New Leaf Markets as well.
EMB: Is it still correct that the restaurant will offer 25 rotating taps of SCMB and other beers, and 10 kegs of local wine?
Emily Thomas: Yep! Behind the bar is a giant copper kettle with 25 brass taps. We will showcase seven Santa Cruz Mountain beers and thirteen other rotating craft beers, cider and kombucha. Beer tasting and selecting has always been a passion of mine. My vision has always been to bring the amazing beers that I get to taste around the world back to Felton to share with my friends and community. I’m proud of our selection—it has something for everyone and it showcases the talents of my hardworking, craft brewing peers. View beer menu here.
Another really cool beer we are showcasing is our house beer, The Margaret Cremer, named after the original owner and brewed by my little sister, Margaret Thomas (who has been running the brewery in my absence). The Margaret Cremer will only be available at the Cremer House and is a red “steam” ale, brewed in the tradition of the time the hotel/restaurant was originally built (1874). She brewed it with Chinook and Centennial hops from a great organic hop farm in Clearlake (Hopmeister). It’s another touch that I am proud of.
EMB: How are you feeling personally?
Emily Thomas: I’m super proud of what we have accomplished and I believe it has the potential to positively impact Felton and the San Lorenzo Valley. I’m usually pretty nervous, always busy, and very excited. I’m also exhausted and exhilarated. It has been a wild experience. I really hope my friends and family will still love me when it is all over. I’ve been a pain to live with for the past year—and I couldn’t have done it without the support of everyone close to me. I mean everyone. I even have my ten-year-old son, Alden washing dishes in his free moments.
Amber Turpin is a food writer and baker who homesteads in Ben Lomond.