Without Tourists and Customers, Ojai Businesses Face a Tough Holiday
Local residents keep watch while fire and smoke from the Thomas Fire head toward their housing estate in Ojai on Dec. 9, 2017. (MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Noso Vita Social Cafe was among the first businesses to reopen in downtown Ojai this week.
The coffee shop is popular among locals and tourists, and co-owner Sean Mason says it felt good to get back behind the counter, even though the pastry shelf was empty of the usual muffins and the computerized payment machine was on the fritz.
“It almost feels like opening for the very first time three years ago,” Mason said. “These uncertain things and not knowing how things are going to work.”
Mason is among the business owners in this picturesque tourist town now bracing for a tough holiday season. Smoky skies from the still-raging Thomas Fire have forced the closure of local hotels, and many businesses in town fear it could wreak havoc on holiday tourism.
Mason said while it felt great to connect with some of the locals he hasn’t seen for a week, he remains concerned about the coffee shop. Sales were down by at least 75 percent, thanks in large part to extremely poor air quality that’s keeping many here indoors.
Most residents who do venture out sport surgical-style face masks to protect against the thick smoke pouring in from the Thomas Fire, burning in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
And while the smoke will eventually clear, the image is exactly the wrong kind of PR for a tourist town approaching the holiday season.
"Ojai Valley has been a tourist-driven economy since Charlie Chaplin told his friends they should come here and take a dip in a hot spring,” said business owner Jeremy Haffner.
Haffner co-owns the Ojai Valley Brewery, which has been closed since his family evacuated twice from their home that ultimately withstood the fast-moving and erratic fire.
“It’s a massive impact on every single business in this town -- especially around Christmas, especially among people selling homemade wares and restaurants and hospitality,” Haffner said.
A number of hotels are shutting down through the holidays. Among them, the 300-room Ojai Valley Inn & Spa. A call to the luxury resort is answered by a recording.
“The Ojai Valley Inn is currently closed for the safety of our associates and guests with a planned reopening of Thursday, Jan. 11."
The Oaks at Ojai, a health resort for women, has also shut its doors for a while. Manager Kyle Griffith said it could take until February before the spa is ready again for visitors.
"We have to get everything cleaned," Griffith said. "I mean I can’t have guests coming to stay in a hotel that reeks of smoke or the air quality isn’t sufficient and healthy, especially given we are a health retreat."
This week about 80 business owners gathered at a local restaurant to discuss the economic fallout from the fire and how best to support the shops and restaurants that are likely to suffer a big hit this holiday season.