The Swiss Hotel was honored as Sonoma County’s Small Business of the Year by State Sen. Bill Dodd on Wednesday, just months before the iconic Sonoma business turns 100.
“Throughout the years I’ve enjoyed working with the public and it’s gratifying to know that someone thinks they’re doing a job that warrants this great honor,” owner Hank Marioni said in the press release. “I certainly didn’t expect that.”
Switzerland, as it is known to locals, was founded by Swiss immigrant Mose Mastelotto in 1923, who took over the West Spain Road property built by General Vallejo’s brother in 1846. Today, patrons can see the plaque embedded in adobe and plaster in reading on the hotel porch, “California Historical Viewpoint No. 496.”
“When it comes to Sonoma businesses, the Swiss Hotel stands out for its unwavering quality and longevity,” Senator Dodd said in a press release. “It is simply the premier family business whose owners have given so much to the community. I am happy to recognize their achievements and wish them continued success.”
The Swiss has passed through four generations of the Mastelotto family in the hands of today’s owner Hank Marioni, a man as gentle as he is sentimental.
He recalls his childhood dinners in the kitchen of the Swiss Hotel where his grandmother worked, and chef Freddie Wing would feed the Marioni brothers’ quartet “whatever was on the stove”.
The Swiss’s menu hasn’t changed dramatically since Marion took over in 1991 — a fact he attributes to the restaurant’s longevity, which has survived while other businesses in Sonoma Plaza have closed, sold, reopened and closed again.
An article about an evening at the Swiss Hotel was documented by Press Democrat reporter Jeff Cox in 2014, illustrating the restaurant’s timeless and ephemeral charm. He described it simply as “la dulce vita, Sonoma style.”
“Sit back, relax, enjoy the nice weather and watch the fascinating parade of people — mostly tourists this time of year — stroll the sidewalk,” Cox wrote in 2014. “Leave the rush to the wait staff rushing to deliver the order. on your red and white checked tablecloth as soon as possible.”
Just as iconic as the Swiss tablecloths is server Jean Powell, who recently realized she’s been working at the Swiss Hotel for exactly half her life after 25 years.
In fact, as part of the city’s “Celebrate Sonoma” program, Powell was given her own day, Aug. 5, in recognition of her place in the community. And over the years, she said, the Swiss has become a second family to her.
“To keep a business this strong and successful for so many generations for so long is huge, isn’t it?” said Powell, at a pace like a hurried dinner. “It is a family. We are not a corporation.”
Powell said it was remarkable that the restaurant would remain in the hands of four generations, and soon, a fifth generation.
Marion will retire in October after running the business for 30 years and hand the reins to his cousin Kristin Dunlap Schantz, a manager in Switzerland for the past 18 years, he said.
When Marion took over the restaurant in 1991, he felt pressure to “not screw it up.” He wanted to build a place to serve the community, host customers who could order an affordable creative brand glass, and be the venue for the “Red and White Ball.”
“We’d have bookings all evening and you get a lot of family groups that I grew up with… And they’d all be wearing red and white,” Marioni said. “It was a real time, just a great time in Sonoma that Saturday night.”
Contact Chase Hunter at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow up @Chase_HunterB on Twitter.