Ronnie Rao thought his business was down for the count during Christmas time in 2015. Rao is the owner of Ronnie’s in Rohnert Park, which is like a Swiss army knife of businesses. It features a wide selection of wines, beers and hard alcohol, a full kitchen, a gourmet delicatessen, a tap room where the beer and wine flow on a nightly basis, an intimate dining area, a small outside patio, all the amenities of a convenience store and it even has a humidor for housing some of the finest cigars around. The kitchen and deli are two separate entities.
During that fateful holiday season in 2015, Rao was saying his goodbyes to his loyal customers and he had long since jettisoned his liquor license.
Like a Hallmark movie
Then, as if it were a Hallmark Channel movie, Rao received his Christmas miracle.
“I was thanking them for everything, and I talked to my landlord and said that I don’t know if I’m going to be here…it was a tough spot,” Rao said. “Two days before Christmas, a wonderful lady sitting at my bar gives me a card. I open up the card and inside was a check for $100,000. It was a big surprise to me. I’m wondering if it’s some kind of sick joke or something. But she said she wanted me to go buy a liquor license.”
The woman, according to Rao, does not want anyone knowing her identity. In fact, it’s such a secret even her own family doesn’t know. But Rao said all those who frequent his business know who the woman is, but they don’t know of her action.
“She would listen to all my talks with the customers,” Rao said. “I was able to buy a license right away. City folks, the zoning department, fire department…they all helped me out. It was a wonderful Christmas story. It took us all of three months to get the license.”
No time for relaxing
Since then, business has increased for Rao, but it hasn’t gotten to the point to where he can relax a little. Rao and his brother Nayan, work many hours a day from 7 a.m. until midnight (until 2 a.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday).
“We work 12-14 hours every day just to survive, make payroll,” he said.
Rao came to the United States in 1985 and has been a resident of Sonoma County for 30 years. He has owned delis in both Petaluma and Santa Rosa, but his current business is his only venture.
He said as of now, the rest of the business would go under if not for the tap room (bar), which pays the overhead for the rest of the parts of the business. The tap room features 24 different types of beers. The bar only allows for beer and wine sales, but inside the convenience store portion of the business, his array of hard liquor can match any liquor store. He also has more than 200 types of beers available for sale.
A lot of smoke shops have popped up in Rohnert Park and Cotati, but none have a humidor. And the humidor at Ronnie’s is the only one of its kind in Rohnert Park or Cotati.
“My friend Scott Rosner and myself created that humidor, and our friend Johnny Contero, helped build it,” Rao said. “The reason we have it is because there are only two real cigar shops in Petaluma and Santa Rosa.”
Patterned after European stores
Rao, who grew up in India but spent time in Europe, is trying to pattern his business after those in Europe, where a little bit of everything can be found. But he also has another goal for the business.
“My vision for this place is to make a neighborhood market where people can hang out and mingle with each other,” Rao said. “I really don’t have customers. I have family and friends…that’s how we try to treat everybody. Everybody knows everyone and talks to everyone. It’s a family type environment we’ve created.”
Foot traffic has been an issue for Rao. There was very little of it when he first opened the store in 2015. Although it has increased somewhat, there are lingering factors that have tamped down the foot traffic. For one, his business, located at 1460 E. Cotati Ave. in Rohnert Park, can be hard to see, especially at night.
“It’s one of the darkest spots…very low lighting…no lights whatsoever,” he lamented.