At 74 years old, Nicki Jones has worn many hats. She’s been an accountant and a stepmother, a caretaker for her late husband and the owner of a women’s clothing store.
But what did she know about running a restaurant? Close to nothing, she is the first to admit.
What she was certain of is food’s ability to bring people together. And God knows that’s what Paradise needs.
The Camp fire laid waste to Jones’ pine-cloaked home in the Feather River Canyon and her store, Bobbi’s Boutique. But she’s not one to dwell on that dark November day.
“I drove through the flames like everybody else did,” Jones says, her voice gravelly as she recounts her escape. “What are you going to do? You keep driving.”
This sense of momentum led her to buy, just two months after the fire, one of the few commercial buildings still standing in Paradise. The plan was to reopen Bobbi’s, which was named after her husband, Bob, who died of cancer in 2012. But the small complex on Skyway, Paradise’s Main Street, had room for a second business. She imagined something warm and inviting, a place that was more about the experience than the product.
This is how Jones in September came to open Nic’s, a sandwich shop by day and a wine and beer bar by night — and, let’s be real, sometimes in the afternoon. It’s the first new restaurant to come to Paradise since the fire destroyed almost the entire town.
In a community where most open businesses service a Paradise in flux and in pain, such as storage facilities and real estate offices and Hootch Hut Liquor, Nic’s offers something else: A place to just be.
Nic’s is filled with light and lots of places to sit. Construction workers and townies belly up to the bar and watch baseball, and country music streams through the speakers. Sepia-toned photographs of Paradise in the 1950s and ‘60s line the walls. There is a turkey sandwich named the Cal Fire Chipotle Club, a tribute to the first responders who fought to save the town.
Word-of-mouth is king in a tight-knit community like Paradise, and residents tend to rave about Nic’s. But there are days when the eatery sees few customers. The town’s population has plummeted from 27,000 to somewhere around 2,000, so the restaurant hosts events to bring people in, such as Wine Wednesdays and beer-and-cheese pairing dinners.
The restaurant, Jones acknowledges, is a gamble.
“If a year from now you see a sign here that says ‘What Was I Thinking? Cafe,’” she quips, “you know it’s time to buy a sandwich.”
When Nic’s opened, burned-out cars and the ruins of Paradise’s business district surrounded the restaurant. The apocalyptic landscape couldn’t have been more different than the Paradise Jones first fell in love with.
Jones and her husband, Bob, were living in the Bay Area suburb of Walnut Creek in the late 1990s, but knew they wanted to retire elsewhere. They would scope out properties in random towns in Northern California on the weekends. If you ask her why they chose Paradise out of all those dreamy mountain communities, she can’t tell you. It was just a feeling.
“From the day that I moved here,” Jones says, “it was the first time I ever felt totally home.”
There’s something special about the people here, Jones notes, made even more special to her through their grim collective experience. It’s why she spends most of her time on her feet, catching up with customers. She waves to everyone who walks in.
“I have a Triple-A personality,” Jones says. “I have one speed. It’s nonstop.”
Jones needed that kind of gusto to power through 2019. She bought a little house in Orland, 35 miles west of Paradise, and then moved back in August after a serious bout of homesickness. She reopened Bobbi’s Boutique, which by some miracle has sold more clothing in the last three months than it did over the previous two years. Then she threw herself into the diner business.
On the morning before Halloween, Jones flutters from one side of the restaurant to the other. Paradise was five days into a PG&E blackout, and Nic’s, outfitted with a generator, was one of the few places in town that had power.
“Who did you get the generator from?” one patron asks Jones as she delivered his sandwich.
“I got it from Egan Electric in Chico,” Jones says, her cornflower blue eyes lighting up. “He did electric on my house 22 years ago. A good guy.”
For Michaela Hughes, Nic’s has restored a much-needed sense of community. On a recent day, she sat at the window with her 8-year-old daughter, Grace, looking out onto Skyway as she nibbled her breakfast panini.
Like almost everyone who wines and dines at Nic’s, Hughes lost her home in the fire. She fled with her dogs, family pictures, a few of Grace’s toys and some guns. The 42-year-old used her insurance payout to buy a standing home in Paradise, making her family one of the relatively few to come back.
“My husband and I ask more and more now, ‘Why did we make this decision?’” Hughes says. Now that most of the rubble has been cleared, Paradise feels like a healing wound, tender to the touch. Every plot of scorched land speaks of what had been there before.
But at Nic’s, Hughes says, it’s like a spark of life has returned to Paradise. To see the lights on at night, the silhouettes of people laughing and drinking, is a great comfort.
“We don’t have baby sitters like we did before the fire,” Hughes says. “But if we did, we’d come here for date night.”
Around noon, Alexa Voyer drops off gluten-free pumpkin muffins and chocolate chip cookies at the front counter. She bakes the sweets out of her home in Chico, where she’s living with her husband and three kids while they rebuild their house in Paradise.
As the 45-year-old spears spongy lemon cake with toothpicks and arranges samples, she explains that she comes to Nic’s every day, even when she’s not supplying Jones with baked goods.
“Life is heavy,” Voyer says. “When you’re not here, you’re tracking down your contractor, looking for the logger. Doing things for your friends to make sure their mental health is in check.”
But at Nic’s, she can enjoy a cup of coffee and just sit and breathe. She can space out without having to explain herself. The people here get it.
They, too, are rebuilding their homes and battling insurance companies. They trade tips on the best local contractors to work with. They speculate over when, or if, the water in town will be safe to drink again. They gossip about who’s coming back and who isn’t.
April Kelly, Jones’ general manager, is well-attuned to conversation centered on recovery. Every single member of her immediate family lost their homes.
Born and raised in Paradise, Kelly jetted off to Hawaii when she was 21. She opened several restaurants there and was a caterer to the stars, coordinating wine-tasting dinners for the likes of Goldie Hawn and Paris Hilton.
Despite those successes, Hawaii wasn’t home. She moved back to Paradise in 2016. She fell in love, had a baby, and then the fire happened. That night, she hosted 17 family members, now with very few possessions to their names, in her Chico home.
Jones, a family friend, called Kelly not long after that and told her she was going to open a restaurant.
“I want to do a wine bar and have somebody make sandwiches and bring them in,” Jones said.
“That’s not gonna work,” Kelly replied. Here’s what will, she said.
Kelly wrote the menu, bringing to it sophisticated touches like charcuterie boards and a Nicoise salad, and helped do the hiring: 16 part-time employees, all but one from Paradise.
It’s late afternoon when Jones finally sits down to eat half a turkey sandwich. She sees a couple sitting together at one of the high tables, silent as they look at their phone screens, but smiling. She hears the whoops at the bar as the Washington Nationals ramp up to beat the Houston Astros in the World Series.
They feel OK. She can see it in their faces. For the moment, that’s all that matters.