Deli's doors open for first responders, others affected by fire, mudslides
By BRETT LEIGH DICKS, NEWS-PRESS CORRESPONDENT
As Patrick Braid pulls up in front of Village Cheese and Wine Store in Montecito with a carload of supplies, the line inside the shop reaches the door.
There are first responders, members of the Red Cross, and locals who have just returned to their homes. Neighbors and friends embrace as tales of fortune and tragedy abound.
Despite the shelves of the Upper Village deli being almost empty, Mr. Braid and his staff have been making sandwiches for the past two months — neither fire nor flood could stop them.
Apart from closing for a week after the Thomas Fire, Village Cheese and Wine has been a place of refuge during Montecito's recent disasters. During both the Thomas Fire and subsequent mudflow, it served hundreds of sandwiches to first responders without accepting a dime. Even now, as locals return home, the store is not charging for sandwiches; customers simply pay what they can or donate to the store's GoFundMe account (www.gofundme.com/feed-the-firemenfirst-responders).
"We can't charge people; in good conscience we wouldn't," Mr. Braid, 47, told the News-Press during a recent visit to the store. "I'm just following in the footsteps of my father."
Mr. Braid has been running the store since 2016. He took over after the passing of his beloved father, John, who operated the business for more than four decades.
"This place is considered to be an institution in Montecito," Mr. Braid said of the no-frills deli. "My father owned this business for 43 years. When he passed, there was a major outpouring from the community, specifically Montecito Union and its kids. It's a Friday tradition for the sixth-grade graduating class to come here after school. We load them up with candy and they hang out on the grassy knoll."
The elder Mr. Braid immigrated to the United States from New Zealand. The former wine merchant moved to Santa Barbara in 1973 after marrying his wife, Jovita; the couple selected the community as their home because of its beauty. Shortly after arriving, they purchased the Village Cheese and Wine Store.
"When my father passed, I literally had kids rushing to hug me, so I made the commitment that no matter what I would continue the legacy in honor of my father, the community and children," Mr. Braid said.
Part of that legacy has been to help out when things get tough. In 2008, after the Tea Fire destroyed 210 Montecito and Santa Barbara homes, the deli provided free lunches to those who lost their homes.
"I have big shoes to fill and that's what I'm doing now," Mr. Braid said of his determination to keep the store open during the recent tragedies. "Obviously, this is on a much grander scale."
As the wind-driven Thomas Fire raged toward Montecito on Dec. 16, Mr. Braid and his brother, Carl, hunkered down in the store, opening its doors and providing a refuge to first responders and supplying them sandwiches, drinks and other goodies.
"On the Thursday, it looked like everything was under control, but on the Saturday, the winds blew up and it felt like at least 200 to 300 homes were going to be wiped out," Mr. Braid said. "It was miracle it didn't (happen). The fire departments and all the other agencies did a tremendous job protecting the community. Being here to support them was the least we could do."
A little more than three weeks later, on Jan. 9, when a downpour over the charred hills behind Montecito gave rise to the catastrophic mudflows, Mr. Braid was one of the first on scene.
"My brother and I jumped into action because we knew how important supporting the first responders would be," Mr. Braid said. "We came up through Coast Village Road and the Montecito Inn. The catastrophe was so fresh you could still hear the hissing and smell the leaking natural gas.
"We wanted to see if the business was still standing, and, if so, to jump into action. There was no power, but we opened the doors and put up the open sign."
The brothers started hand-carving cold cuts and making sandwiches for first responders.
As exclusion zones were put in place and Montecito was placed on lockdown, Mr. Braid reached out to local authorities about maintaining access to the store. It was the California Highway Patrol that took a leap of faith in Mr. Braid and helped him gain access to the exclusion zone.
"No matter what, we were going to be open to take care of those guys," Mr. Braid said. "I was the only civilian with unfettered access to come in and out of here and have an operating business to support first responders and the locals that stayed."
As well as feeding first responders, the Village Cheese and Wine Store also became an emergency grocer. With the store's bank balance taking a hit from the Thomas Fire, Mr. Braid contacted Home Depot, which donated a generator, while various other local stores, including Smart & Final and Trader Joe's, donated essential grocery items.
"After the Thomas Fire, we were undercapitalized," Mr. Braid said. "I knew I wasn't going to charge people, so I needed help. I called around and every morning would do a supply run. I even picked up people's medicine for them.
"It was such a traumatic situation, so it was critical that we provided support. This became a place of refuge. These people are my friends and family, and during all of this, we lost some of that family. This hit us smack dab in the middle, and when that happens, you have to do something to help."
YOU CAN HELP
To donate to Village Cheese and Wine Store's GoFundMe account, go towww.gofundme.com/feed-the-firemenfirst-responders. Proceeds are being used to help support the shop and its efforts to provide free food and supplies to first responders and others assisting in the Montecito mudslides.