All in the Family
Meet the newest owner of a local favorite that is must-stop for residents and visitors alike.
By Paula Riley
Photography by Gina Munda
What’s red and white and tasty all over? The Mill Works Deli and Bakery, located in the red-and-white zone of Graeagle proper, in Plumas County, Calif. It’s where owner Sonja Partain keeps things real by serving house-made meals and bakery sweets in a shop that’s been in her family for 40 years.
Partain flashes an infectious smile when she describes being the third generation to own and operate the Mill Works. In 1978, her paternal grandmother opened the restaurant, originally across the street and down a block. Partain, who grew up in nearby Sattley, was 5 when she “started helping Grandma down at the other location. I couldn’t even see over the counter. She was a painter as well, and she had painted a portrait of me when I was, like, 8…I was only here on vacations, but [because of the portrait] everybody knew me.” Some people stopping in today still remember Partain from that earlier time.
During her father’s 15-year tenure at the Mill Works, Partain was busy raising her family. But even then she spent her vacations helping out, especially in summer, when summer residents and visitors expand Graeagle exponentially. In a 2015 move that fulfilled decades of predicting that she “was always going to own Grandma’s shop,” she bought the deli from her father and his wife.
Next came the challenge, she says, “of trying to maintain the roots of those generations but also trying to figure out how to update for modern tastes.” Consequently, customers can now order breakfast items like burritos and bowls of eggs, veggies and meat in spicy or mild combos, easy dishes to grab and go. Grilled sandwiches are also a nod to modern tastes. But there’s at least one recipe Partain won’t tweak—her grandmother’s New York-style cheesecake, which won the 2016 “People’s Choice” award at the annual “Taste of Plumas” competition, a juried countywide event. Her gold-flecked green eyes sparkle when she relates feeling validated for keeping the Mill Works’ reputation sweet.
The deli’s casual fare attracts regulars from Graeagle and surrounding communities. One customer drives over from the golf community of White Hawk: Anne-with-an-“e” says, “There’s nowhere else to eat.” A figure of speech to which she adds, “I was really into their quiche but I love their new paninis.” On a recent spring day Anne dined on soup and iced tea followed by a slice of cheesecake. She also took a sandwich to go. Dinner, maybe?
Soups—that draw another customer from 15 miles away—start with Grandma’s recipes for potato-leek, New England-style clam chowder, beef barley, potato cheddar, taco, Tuscan sausage with kale, black bean and more. It’s the sort of unpretentious fare that keeps a person’s motor running for the next outdoor adventure. A little kitsch adds seasoning. Exhibit A: the T-shirt-wearing faux black bear welcoming visitors to the shop’s front porch. You can call him Larry and pose with him for selfies; just don’t call him late for lunch (ba-da-boom).
Inside the shop, yellow walls emit their own sunny glow. There’s a small bakery counter and a whole wall of teas, bulk candy choices and specialty coffee beans for grinding on the spot. In its previous life, this shop, like the matching ones on the don’t-blink-or-you’re-through-it main drag, was once a residence for local box mill workers. Outfitted now in mismatched tables and chairs, the main room still sports a seam in the ceiling where the tiny house was once transported in two pieces by train, to be reassembled where it now sits. Such last-century quirks are part of the charm.
Without local sources for most ingredients, Partain relies on traditional sources, investing creativity and patience once the fixings reach her kitchen; her clam chowder, for instance, requires 10 ingredients. As you might imagine, prep starts early and runs all day, with from-scratch baking of pillowy cinnamon rolls, giant cookies and scrumptious cakes commencing at 5 a.m.
Mill Works stocks fair trade coffee beans from San Francisco’s Capricorn brand and organic Blind Dog coffee from Gardnerville, Nev. Jelly Belly candies have been a staple since 1978. An unflagging supporter of other small business owners, Partain also carries award-winning small-batch jams, hand-thrown pottery mugs from Planet X and locally made greeting cards.
Summer hours are 7 a.m.–5 p.m., with three delicious exceptions. On Wednesday evenings, a fixed dinner menu starts at 6 p.m. and local musicians provide free music in the backyard until 9 p.m. On Friday and Saturday evenings, barbecued chicken, brisket or ribs are available for take-out.
While her grandmother instilled in her “the love of cooking,” Partain says she likes to work the front of her shop too, serving customers and hearing what people are up to. That might be a trait passed down through the generations, because like grandmother, like father and like daughter, Partain’s son now reportedly “lights up when he’s here… He’s great with people.” If a fourth generation takes over Graeagle Mill Works someday, its front porch might still boast a black bear and its menu an award-winning cheesecake.