The Lottery Is the Main Attraction at This Alpine County Market

A drawing of Mad Dog Cafe and Market. (Courtesy of Jennifer Quilici)

Alpine County is one of California’s most remote counties. On the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada and just south of Lake Tahoe, Alpine has the smallest population of any California county, with just under 1,200 residents. But it’s no tiny enclave. By comparison, Alpine County and Alameda County cover roughly the same amount of land area — about 740 square miles — but Alameda has more than 1,500 times as many residents.

There are only a handful of businesses in Alpine County — the Markleeville General Store, a coffee shop called Alps Haus Cafe and several lodging and recreation businesses. Most of Alpine’s economy relies on tourism and outdoor recreation. In the winter, ski resorts in Bear Valley and Kirkwood fill up, and in the summer, camping and fishing season sustain the local economy.

Most of the businesses are in downtown Markleeville. But, a little farther north on top of an old Pony Express stop called Woodfords Station, there’s place called the Mad Dog Cafe. Mad Dog has a deli and sells other specialty food, but that’s not their main draw.

A big chunk of Mad Dog’s customer base comes in just to play the California lottery. Owner Jennifer Quilici is able to pay most of her employee’s salaries through her lottery sales. “I generate a lot of revenue — over a million dollars a year in revenue for the Lotto and I get a commission off of that,” Quilici said.

With the summer season around the corner, Mad Dog is stocked up on specialty goods for the reopening. (Courtesy of Jennifer Quilici)

Most of Mad Dog’s lottery customers aren’t Californians. The market is six miles from the Nevada border and since Nevada doesn’t have a state lottery, Mad Dog is the closest place for older, retired Nevadans who love to play their scratchers. Quilici said they’re reliable customers: “I hear day in and day out that they've been playing it for 30 years since it opened.”

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Quilici doesn’t fully understand the phenomenon. Sometimes she asks them what they’ll do with the money if they win, “And they're like, ‘Well, I may give it to my children or I don't know.’ ” She thinks that over the years, the routine has grown into a pastime for her customers.

When Gov. Gavin Newsom issued the shelter-in-place order in March, Mad Dog stayed open, serving to-go sandwiches and still selling lottery tickets. Their lottery sales went up in late March since they were one of the last stores in the area still open and selling them. Sales were up over 500% from the same time period last year, according to Quilici. Some customers from Nevada were driving more than an hour to get their tickets from Mad Dog.

Since her retiree customers are among the highest-risk population for the novel coronavirus, Quilici took precautionary measures and implemented new policies to encourage social distancing. The staff was constantly disinfecting the store with cleaning wipes, and customers were only allowed in a few at a time with cones to keep people 6 feet apart.

Her customers weren’t all complying. When they put chairs on top of tables to discourage groups from sitting down together, some of the lottery customers took them down. In response, staff moved the chairs out of the store.

Chris Howell, who works as a clerk at Mad Dog, and his wife, Joy, manage the store. He said one customer was coughing and hacking and said that he didn’t care if he died. “And Joy looked at him and says, ‘Well, I do!’ ”

Quilici’s concerns about the health of her customers and employees continued to grow. Alpine County’s public health officer was concerned as well. He encouraged Quilici to close Mad Dog so lottery customers would stop making the trip from Nevada. County officials’ biggest concern throughout the COVID-19 crisis has been outsiders coming to Alpine to escape urban centers and unwittingly bringing the virus with them.

A collection of California Lottery scratcher tickets — sold in many stores with payouts of various amounts. (iStock)

Alpine is the only county in California with no hospital beds, so any outbreak could quickly overrun the county health clinic, which is only open two days a week. When the county clinic is closed, residents need to drive to either South Lake Tahoe or across the state line to Carson Valley in Nevada — both about a 30-minute drive away. The lack of medical resources is the main reason that the county ordered all short-term rentals, including Airbnb and some local rental companies, to cease operations. The U.S. Forest Service also closed down the campgrounds in Alpine.

In early April, Quilici decided to shut down. She says her lottery customers seemed to understand. But Howell said that when he and his wife parked in the lot to check on the store, three or four cars would pull up with people asking if they were open again.

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So far, only one resident in Alpine County has tested positive for COVID-19 and that person has recovered. Businesses in Alpine have reopened over the last week or so with the support of the county health department. In a statement, Alpine County Health and Human Services Director Nichole Williamson said the department “has been in contact with all restaurants in the county that are reopening and provided guidance and support to them so they can ensure the safety of their employees and customers.”

With the go-ahead from the county, Quilici reopened Mad Dog on May 4. But it’s not the same as pre-COVID-19. Quilici is keeping the health precautions in place; the store has tape to keep people 6 feet apart and plexiglass at the counter to separate customers and employees. She thinks this will be the new normal for a while.

“I think everything's gonna change now,” Quilici said. “People are going to be mindful of what can happen and how things can change so quickly and how they can affect our health.”

Even though they can only come in a few at a time, Mad Dog’s regulars are ecstatic about the reopening. On the day she reopened, the phone was ringing nonstop with people calling in to ask if the store was open yet. In her first two days — a Monday and a Tuesday, which are typically the slowest days — the lottery ticket sales were double their average.

Quilici’s hopeful that the business will be able to bounce back and make up for the lost revenue during the closure. At the very least, she’s happy that Mad Dog Cafe and the lottery can provide a return to normalcy and a bit of respite for her dedicated customers.