The Swiss Hotel was awarded Sonoma County Small Business of the Year by State Sen. Bill Dodd on Wednesday, just months shy before the iconic Sonoma business has its centennial anniversary.
“Throughout the years I’ve enjoyed working with the public and it is gratifying to know someone thinks you’re doing a job that warrants this great honor,” owner Hank Marioni said in the press release. “I certainly didn’t expect this.”
The Swiss, as it’s known to locals, was founded by Switzerland immigrant Mose Mastelotto in 1923, who took over the West Spain Street property built by Gen. Vallejo’s brother in 1846. Today, patrons can see the plaque inlaid into adobe and plaster on the hotel’s porch reading, “California Historical Landmark No. 496.”
“When it comes to Sonoma businesses, the Swiss Hotel stands out for its unswerving quality and longevity,” Sen. Dodd said in a press release. “It is simply the quintessential family business whose owners have given so much to the community. I’m happy to recognize their achievement and wish them continued success.”
The Swiss has passed through four generations of Mastelotto’s family to the hands of today’s owner Hank Marioni, a man as soft spoken as he is sentimental.
He remembers his childhood suppers in the Swiss Hotel’s kitchen where his grandmother worked, and the cook Freddie Wing would give the quartet of Marioni brothers “whatever he had on the stove.”
The menu of the Swiss has not changed dramatically since Marioni took over in 1991 — a fact he attributes to the longevity of the restaurant that has survived while other businesses on 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 timeless and ephemeral charm of the restaurant. He described it simply as “la dulce vita, Sonoma style.”
“Sit back, relax, enjoy the balmy weather, and watch the fascinating parade of people — mostly tourists at this time of year — strolling by on the sidewalk,” Cox wrote in 2014. “Leave the rush to the wait staff that hustles to get your order to your red-and-white-checked tablecloth as quickly as possible.”
Just as iconic as the Swiss’ tablecloths is server Jean Powell, who recently realized that she has 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 that many generations for that long is huge, right?” Powell said, with a cadence like a dinner rush. “It’s a family. We’re not corporate.”
Powell said it was remarkable for the restaurant to stay in the hands of four generations, and soon, a fifth generation.
Marioni is retiring in October after running the business for 30 years and will hand the reins over to his cousin’s daughter Kristin Dunlap Schantz, a manager at the Swiss for the past 18 years, he said.
When Marioni took over the restaurant in 1991, he felt pressure to “not screw it up.” He wanted to build a place to serve the community, to host patrons who could order an affordable glass of Maker’s Mark and to be the place for the “Red and White Ball.”
“We would have reservations all through the evening and you get lots of groups of families that I grew up with… And everybody would dress up in red and white,” Marioni said. “That was a real, just a real great time in Sonoma that Saturday night.”