This Placerville family sees success with not one but two popular restaurants.
By Kathleen Vivaldi
Photography by Colleen Vivaldi
Husband-and-wife team Jeff and Judy Thoma, Placerville residents since the 1970s, have—not surprisingly—seen a lot of growth and change in their town. What is surprising: The leaps forward have often been of their own making.
In 1991, for instance, Placerville and its surrounding areas did not offer stand-alone coffee bars. Ahead of their time, the Thomas’ initial food venture was Cuppa Joe, the first coffee and espresso bar in town. “I look back and think that was an easy business compared to what we’re doing now,” says Jeff Thoma. “Five employees, easy hours, but we were so small we couldn’t ever grow to a point where it was sustainable, where we could leave and take a vacation and do things for ourselves.”
So after six years, the Thomas sold Cup O’ Joe. Judy went on to earn her graduate degree (she currently teaches humanities at Sacramento State University) and Jeff went to work for an architectural firm. Yet they both still possessed a desire to delve back into the entrepreneurial restaurant business.
“This is very cliche, but it was not unlike what you see in a movie, where we’re at dinner, writing notes on napkins and thinking, ‘Is this a good idea?’ or ‘Could that work, could this work up here?’” Judy says.
When a space opened up on Main Street, Jeff called Judy and said, “Well, we’ve been talking about it—we either do something about it or quit talking about it.” He laughs now: “So we just did it!”
The Thomas took out an equity line and started turning their vision into a reality. In January 2007, Heyday Café opened.
“The original focus was for Heyday to be super simple—tapas, a wine bar, very limited food, and just a fun place to be—but it morphed into a full-service restaurant,” Jeff says. “We didn’t feel we could survive in a tiny town with a very limited menu, just serving local wines by the glass and some small nosh to go with.” So fast-forward 10 years: Heyday today is a warm, casual spot where the food and wine are taken very seriously.
In November 2011, the couple opened a second Placerville restaurant, The Independent Restaurant and Bar, with additional partner, Ben Carter, Judy’s son and Jeff’s stepson. The planning stages had been outlined since 2009, but the economy in 2011 was really struggling. With the help of a loyal patron’s encouragement and a leap of faith, however, the second restaurant came to fruition. Now in its sixth year, The Independent features upscale cuisine, a full bar and patio dining year-round.
The Thomas and Carter provide high levels of care and dedication that extend to both restaurants and are noticed by customers—but also by staff. “We have incredible longevity (with personnel) at both restaurants and that’s been a good part of our success,” says Jeff.
The venture is also truly a family business: All their children have worked at either Heyday or The Independent through the years. In addition to Ben, Judy’s sons Keir and Vaughn Wilkinson both worked at Heyday in the beginning, and have since gone on to pursue other careers. Jeff and Judy’s daughter, Marielle, continues to work as a server while attending Sac State. “Maybe the litmus is our daughter, who’s been around it for years,” Judy says. “She will tell you without reservation she loves coming to work. She works almost every weekend and has since she was 15.”
As for the three partners’ roles, Jeff says they each specialize in order to make sure the operation runs smoothly: “Ben focuses on food, I focus on all the business management, and Judy was the creative force behind the initial menu development and interior design of both restaurants.”
Heyday and The Independent may differ in decor and menu, but they have identical philosophies. “We’re focused on fresh, focused on the guest experience, and (focused on) service,” Jeff says. “It’s creating an experience so that people want to come back.”
The Independent Restaurant and Bar
Seven years after Heyday opened, owners Jeff and Judy Thoma and partner Ben Carter had visions of opening a second restaurant.
“We wanted to bring Ben in more at a partner level, because (Judy and I) own Heyday and Ben had been working there, but he didn’t really have an ownership stake, so Independent was an opportunity for him,” says Jeff.
The result: a distinctive restaurant boasting a large traditional bar, soft lighting and a sophisticated, upscale menu. In addition, the 50-person patio—with a stone fireplace and heat lamps in a courtyard environment— gives their guests a fun outdoor option all year round.
The cocktail menu is extensive and the most popular drinks include the Gran Picard, Bourbon Ginger Smash, Moscow Mule and Royal Basil Martini.
“We don’t use any premixed mixers—we make them all from scratch; hand-squeeze all of our juices; and we make our own ginger syrup,” Jeff Thoma says.
The same “fresh, quality food” philosophy at Heyday applies to The Independent menu too. As a starter, the Cajun BBQ turnip fries with house-made blue cheese and chipotle aioli sauce come highly recommended.
On the lighter side, the strawberry prawn salad is not only beautifully presented, it is scrumptious to eat: made with fresh prawns, feta cheese, strawberries, red onion, candied walnuts, mixed greens, and tossed in a light homemade raspberry vinaigrette.
Diners can also choose from a variety of steaks, chops, fish, chicken and burgers. The classic Independent burger will satisfy even the hungriest with a house-ground 1/2-pound certified Hereford Prime patty, house-made aioli, and organic white cheddar (add avocado, bacon or blue cheese); it is served with a choice of turnip fries, salad or soup.
Lunch and dinner seven days a week
Sunday brunch 10 a.m.–2 p.m
629 Main St., Placerville, CA
Step into Heyday Café, located on Main Street in Historic Downtown Placerville, and you find a quaint neighborhood place. This intimate restaurant—with exposed brick walls, wood-beamed ceilings and a cozy wood-topped bar—attracts (and warmly welcomes) locals and tourists alike.
The cafe celebrated its 10-year anniversary this past January, but is still cutting-edge, pairing seasonal dishes with unique wines.
In fact, owners Jeff and Judy Thoma attribute their success to two distinguishing elements: wine selection and specialty entrees. “One of our big defining factors in the beginning at Heyday was a very international list of wine,” Jeff says. “(And) our salads are entree-size, gourmet, and that was a huge draw.”
For starters, try the hearty homemade sherry-infused lobster bisque or the artisanal cheese platter with a selection of cheeses, roasted walnuts, crisp apples, strawberries and grapes. The house salad is also picture perfect and just as delicious: fresh, crisp mixed greens, maple-sweetened pecans, artisanal blue cheese and sliced apples, topped with a savory apple cider vanilla vinaigrette.
Heyday offers a wide selection of popular pizzas as well. Choose the house-made sausage pie with bell peppers, onions and mushrooms or the butternut bacon pizza, with extra-virgin-olive-oil-brushed crust, roasted butternut squash, sauteed spinach, applewood smoked bacon, goat cheese, caramelized onions, toasted almonds and a three-cheese blend.
Five or six dinner entrees are offered per menu and are adjusted seasonally to reflect what’s locally available. Pair any starter, salad, pizza, panini or entree with any of the 31 wines offered by the glass. These include selections from Placerville and other local wineries, or as far-flung as South Africa, New Zealand and Israel.
Lunch seven days a week
325 Main St., Placerville, CA
530-626-9700 • heydaycafe.com