Most Viewed Stories
Rocco's restaurant generating energy in downtown Colusa
Highway 20 band leaders D.J. Mathis and Gene McKasson will be pouring the drinks at Rocco’s tonight. All the tips they collect will go to a local charity.
It was a hush-hush start that resounded through the Colusa downtown like the Sacramento River fire horn rings out for an emergency — everyone heard it.
Now, more than a month after that Oct. 4 beginning, when the open sign was never lit up but the restaurant and bar quickly were, owners Don Litchfield and Carolee Ornbaun are settling in at Rocco's Bar & Grill.
"It has always been a dream of mine," Litchfield said.
The new restaurant has a brighter, more open look than the Brick House, which had occupied the space since 1993, and closed late last year.
Litchfield said he and Ornbaun bought the building and the liquor license from the previous owners, but not the business.
And it was anything but love at first sight for Ornbaun.
"When he first brought me in here, and it was so dark, and you could smell the cigarettes, I thought he was crazy," Ornbaun said.
But Litchfield saw the potential in what both agree is a grand old building, one of the centerpieces of the downtown area that needs new life to bring it back to its historic glory.
That point is not lost on the city officials and other business leaders who are openly pointing to Rocco's for the energy it has generated.
Litchfield has to admit that was not part of his vision, but agrees that if more people come downtown for whatever reason, all the area businesses will eventually benefit.
Similarly, he hopes as the city moves forward with its revitalization plans — with a particular emphasis on using the river to attract tourist dollars — Rocco's will benefit from that.
Not many argue that Kittle's has created some of that retail flow already, and although not part of the downtown, Steelhead Lodge has had a noted impact as well.
Additionally, Tommy's Market Street Grill is expanding into the bigger Mi Ranchito building, a couple of hair salons have opened, the fitness center is getting new money, and another exercise place is scheduled to open in the near future — all in the downtown area.
Litchfield started his quest about three years ago, admittedly not all that seriously at first.
Things picked up about a year ago, and not long after that, the horn blasted.
But in a very real sense, Litchfield has been heading in this direction for decades.
"I got into the restaurant business when I was 15," said Litchfield, who started as a dishwasher at a Walnut Creek bar and grill, and worked his way up to top chef.
In the meantime, he had taken on the kitchen duties — and much more — at home because of his mother's health problems.
"She started to teach me recipes," Litchfield said. "It was hard on a 16-year-old to take on all those responsibilities, but it made me grow up."
He said he loved cooking from the start.
Many in the area will remember Litchfield as the chef at the Maxwell Inn for about five years in the mid-1990s.
He and several friends also ran the very popular Big Belly barbecue business, which has been absorbed into Rocco's.
For then next decade-plus, Litchfield worked on the business side of the food industry, learning what has been valuable lessons from Sysco and later U.S. Foods.
Still, it was cooking and running his own restaurant that was his ultimate dream.
Ornbaun ran own her own coffee shop in Williams — Brews and Brats — for about three years.
That relatively short life taught her one indelible lesson: Never rent, again.
She also was the manager at the Togos/Baskin-Robbins outlet in Williams for many years, but says her love of customer service started with her first job as a teenager at Chevron stations in Sacramento and Davis.
"I love it. The people you meet and the challenges you have every day; it is fun," Ornbaun said.
The name Rocco's comes from their English bulldog.
Litchfield said even the logo has a resemblance to the dog, and he said the name seemed to fit better than anything else they considered.
Litchfield shies away from saying he has a particular style of cooking, though he is well-known for his smoked delectables and barbecued goods.
He said the restaurant in Walnut Creek often offered as many as 20 specials each day, and in a variety of styles, from southwestern to Thai, and he likes that flexibility.
Still, he and Orbaun agreed early on they wanted to offer something no one else in town was providing.
It was not enough to be different, but they did not want to take away from someone else's business, but only to enhance the overall eating menu for the Colusa area.
Community is important to the couple, which is why they bring in a guest bartender once a month, with the tips to that person going to a charity of the guest bartender's choice.
Ornbaun cannot help but laugh at the memory of Camie Kaelin, with Wells Fargo mortgage services, behind the bar — and the sugar that covered everything behind the bar.
Still, the Colusa County Breast Cancer Fund earned more than $1,200 that night.
Tonight, the two leads of the Highway 20 band, D.J. Mathis and Gene McKasson, will be raising funds for their favorite local charity.
On Thanksgiving, the Rocco's crew is donating their labor, and after costs, all profits are going to the Food Basket Program, Litchfield said.
Litchfield and Ornbaun said they have other ideas for their place, but are not saying what they are just yet.
For now, they are happy to settle into the daily routine of serving lunch and dinner at Rocco's, plus their catering service and a banquet room that is available, too.
That is, when it is not being used by a group of local women who have claimed it for their frequent bridge games in the afternoons.