Forging a Path through the Pandemic: Young Pioneers of the Mendocino Coast

Over the past few years, I’ve interviewed more than two dozen people who grew up along the Mendocino Coast and couldn’t wait to move away, believing they’d never return. But return they did, to establish businesses or professional careers. Some also chose this place to raise children, to nurture them in the small town values that shaped their own childhoods.
These are a new wave of pioneers who, like their forebearers, use intelligence and  imagination to forge a vibrant path. In exchange for the privilege of being able to live in one of the most beautiful places on earth, they work long, hard hours.
The shelter in place orders due to Covid-19 have knocked many down, but they are devising ways to get back up and resume their vision of what it means to live here.
They have open minds and are digging deep to find solutions.
They have entrepreneurial spirits that will spawn innovations to move them forward.
We are so fortunate to have them here—especially during this trying time. 


Brittney Tuomala—A Sweet Affair

BrittneyCovid1Brittney’s dedication to the creation of artful desserts and specialty cakes was revealed in my first interview with her in 2014.

A single mother of two young children and sole support of her family, Brittney panicked when the shelter in place order was issued, forcing her to cease business as usual in her beloved patisserie. “One day, I’m making cakes like there’s no care in the world,” she says, “and the next, I have to close the doors.”

Desperate thoughts swirled through her head. “If sales decrease or come to a halt, how do I pay my rent? Feed my kids? Take care of the monthly bills for the business and my home? This inner battle took a serious toll—some crying, some moping, a lot of drinking.”

The same entrepreneurial spirit that propelled Brittney to return to her hometown and create a successful bakery, made her realize she couldn’t give up. “I need to be strong and positive for my kids. I have to figure out how to work as much as I can to keep money flowing while also homeschooling the two of them.”

Brittney has adjusted her business practices by limiting offerings, which now have to be ordered in advance. An order for a cake or gift box placed by 5:00pm will be ready for pick up or delivery the following day. “Being able to conduct some business during these times is a confidence booster. In the face of all this darkness, I’m still going!”

Brittney isn’t sure how she’ll run her bakery when the shelter in place order is lifted.  “Right now, desserts are made to order so I’m not losing money to product waste. On the other hand, sales have severely decreased so I’m not generating as much revenue.

“I’m the only storefront pastry shop in town. I don’t want to take that away from the locals or the tourists. I don’t need a storefront to fill orders for special occasions. I can also become a wholesale shop and sell my desserts through other businesses.”

In the midst of all this, her shop’s landlord compounded her difficulties. “When I couldn’t pay May’s rent, he refused my letter regarding the city’s eviction moratorium. His lawyer claims I should have enough income to pay and I need to show bank records to prove I can’t. My sales are less than half of what they were this time last year.” She worries about the outcome of this situation.

Brittney is inspired by how our community has come together to support one another. “People are ordering food delivery to help restaurants and buying gift cards from local businesses. All of this positivity can only inspire more good.”

She acknowledges that the future of our business community is uncertain. “Without tourism during the busy spring/summer months, some won’t make it. It’s heartbreaking. More than half my revenue comes from weddings and events, which have mostly been cancelled. There are countless other vendors in the same boat.”

Brittney is grateful to live in a place filled with love and support. She encourages people to spend money locally. Even though much of her revenue is generated from tourist dollars, she doesn’t want to see them come here at this time. “The shelter in place order is never going to be lifted if we don’t follow the rules. My fellow business owners and I are desperate to reopen.”

Brittney’s pioneer grit is strengthening “Never give up,” she says. “If we can get through this, we can get through anything. We will emerge stronger than before.”


Brittney Tuomala Harris

brittney4The first time I walked into A Sweet Affair, I clutched my chest and swooned. It’s like entering an art gallery, each pastry crafted by a master. You hesitate to destroy the creation, but after the first bite, you learn that the visual is only part of the divine feast. Hopefully, you’re sitting down because as you eat you will drift into semi-conscious nirvana.


In fourth grade at Dana Gray Elementary, Brittney’s research for a report on the human heart influenced her decision to become a cardiovascular surgeon. By fifth grade, she developed a chronic childhood illness that caused her to spend nearly a decade in and out of hospitals. “The thought of working in one for the rest of my life sickened me.”

By high school, she struggled with where to go to college. “I had a hard time justifying going to a standard four year school. What was I supposed to major in?”

Her decision to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, was prompted by years spent in the kitchen baking with her mother. “As kids, my sister and I had a business called ‘The Sisters Cookie Company’ where we would sit outside our house and sell homemade cookies.”

brittney8By December 2010, she had an Associate’s Degree in Baking and Pastry and a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Management. Her future husband Beau also attended the school, but majored in Culinary. They met while working at the same restaurant.

Beau graduated in 2009 and took a chef’s job in New York City. On weekends, Brittney commuted from Hyde Park to work as a server at Brasserie 8 1/2. “In a few short months, I moved to the back of the house as a pastry cook. Immediately, the executive chef went on vacation. She left me in charge during New York Restaurant Week. I worked over 160 hours during the two weeks she was gone.”

brittney6In June, Brittney discovered she was pregnant. Her executive chef quit in July, and she ran the kitchen until two weeks before son Avery was born in January 2012. She left on maternity leave and never went back.

Life in New York City was exciting, but expensive. Beau worked long hours to support the family. Brittney longed to return to California where she’s a fifth generation Fort Bragg native. In the spring of 2012, Beau was hired by celebrity chef Michael Chiarello to work at Bottega in Yountville.

“I worked for Thomas Keller at Bouchon Bakery as a pastry commis [a fancy French term for cook].” But the prestige of the job was in name only. “I was like a robot, making the same stuff every day. When chefs work in a restaurant, they want to learn new techniques. I learned nothing there.”

Nine months later, they moved to San Francisco to help Chiarello open Coqueta. They were building remarkable resumes, but their lives were consumed by work. Each morning, Brittney took public transportation from Alameda to start her 7:00 shift. In the afternoon, Beau put Avery in the car and drove into the city for his evening shift. At 3:00, he’d get out of the car and Brittney would get in to drive home. “The restaurant is only a couple of blocks from the Bay Bridge but during Giants baseball season, it could take two hours to travel that distance.”

For eight months, they struggled through this schedule and the high cost of living in the Bay Area before deciding to move to Fort Bragg where they could be near her family. Beau was hired by the Heritage House in Little River and Brittney started a home business where—in between keeping up with a toddler—she baked and sold cakes, pastries, and handmade chocolates.

brittney7In July 2014, she opened A Sweet Affair. “I love being my own boss, making whatever my heart desires, and creating specialty orders.” By August, she was pregnant. In April 2015, she gave birth to another son, Addison.

Brittney works insane hours to balance family with running a business. She possesses the face of a Renaissance beauty, a surface serenity that belies her underlying stress.

Time is a precious commodity and Brittney has little to spare. The morning of our interview, she answered questions while putting together a batch of French macarons. I marveled at the confident way she folded Oreo crumbs with buttercream, scooped it into a pastry bag, squeezed a dollop onto several dozen cookie halves, and topped each with a matching half.

Her shop is open 10:00-4:00 Thursday through Sunday, but she spends the early morning hours—often starting at 4:00—either baking or doing paperwork. Monday is her only day off. Her husband has Tuesday and Wednesday off, which allows her to work from early morning until noon to stock the bakery. Those afternoons are spent together as a family. During holiday seasons, she works seven days a week, often 14 hours a day.

brittney5Her grandparents watch her boys two days a week. Mother Ronda staffs the counter at the bakery on the weekends and helps at charity functions. Brittney’s macarons are a favorite among food stations at Winesong, Mendocino Film Festival, Art in the Gardens, and other venues. She estimates she donates about $4,000 a year to these events.

Brittney is passionate about her craft. “I love making beautiful, edible art—to make people happy with dessert. A cake can be the center of someone’s celebration—birthday, wedding, or baby shower. Desserts can create a great memory. I want to be a part of that memory. When I see someone’s face light up at the sight or taste of something I made, it makes all my hard work, sleepless nights, blood, sweat and tears worth it.”


Brittney created these cakes to help Chriss Zaida celebrate her store’s anniversary and relocation.

Brittney is encouraged by the network of small business owners who support one another. She hopes this support system will inspire others to open businesses. “There are a lot of empty storefronts downtown. This can discourage tourists from coming back. Understandably, a lot of locals can’t afford the high quality items we sell. We depend upon tourists to survive.”

Like many before her, Brittney couldn’t wait to graduate and get far away from this small town. She ventured into the world, gathered what it had to offer, and brought back the gems to a place the years away had taught her to love.

A Brittney creation made this guy happy to turn 30.

A Brittney creation made this guy happy to turn 30.