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Business

Struggling Sojourner Café Owner Reaches Out to Community for Help

The longtime Santa Barbara staple is in trouble financially and is looking for an investor who can help revitalize the space

Sojourner Cafe owner Donna Mudge is reaching out to the community to help save the restaurant, a Santa Barbara landmark that’s hit some tough times financially.
Sojourner Cafe owner Donna Mudge is reaching out to the community to help save the restaurant, a Santa Barbara landmark that’s hit some tough times financially. (Gina Potthoff / Noozhawk photo)

Airing her private concerns about the state of the Santa Barbara restaurant didn’t seem right, but remaining silent was an option Donna Mudge couldn’t afford.

The Sojourner Café is in trouble.

How it happened wasn’t something Mudge could put her finger on.

The recession hurt many businesses besides the Sojourner Café at 134 E. Canon Perdido St., but sales at the restaurant that turns 37 next month have dipped some seven years later.

Lunch patrons still crowd the dining floor most days, but not at the old wait-listed levels.

The nearby Lobero Theatre closed for renovation, the Ensemble Theater Company moved from the El Presidio district to the New Vic two years ago, more restaurants opened and “foodies” were everywhere.

All the change happened around it, but Sojourner’s health-minded menu of items like the vegan Tempeh Rueben and a Juice+ Plus Mighty Green Shake stayed the same.

“Do I go with the trend or do I go with sustainable?” Mudge asked on a recent morning at the restaurant she’s called home since 1988. “But it’s not sustainable right now.”

In a call to action, the café owner is reaching out to the community to save the Sojourner.

She’s seeking a business partner, an investor, someone who might be able to lessen her load or provide money to revitalize a space that hasn’t been redecorated since it opened in 1978 — minus the rotating work of local artists, many of them tied to the Summer Solstice Celebration.

The last ditch effort would be selling.

“It’s like throwing a party for 200 people every day, and you have to feed them,” Mudge said. “I want to save the Sojourner right now. I know the community would miss it.”

Mudge, 53, has commanded the floor as owner since 1999, when she took over the business from the original owner. Before that, she was a part owner, having worked her way up from prep cook, line cook and server.

On her Sojourner application, Mudge wrote she wanted to one day own a restaurant, but she didn’t know it would end up being this one.

She moved to Santa Barbara from upstate New York to be near family all those years ago and never left.

Passion, she has, but not the time to be the face of the restaurant or money to maintain it.

She doesn’t want to let staff go — a handful of 32 employees have been with the restaurant 15 years or more — and she’d hate to increase prices because her costs are going up. Right now, the average dish price is $12.

“I really like that Cheers mentality,” Mudge said, wanting to know her customers. “This has always been a really nurturing establishment. We’re like family here.

“We have our own in-house bakers. We change our desserts daily. It’s like putting on a show.”

Advertising is minimal, but she’s trying to raise awareness for Sojourner as a member of the Santa Barbara Downtown Organization and the Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce, which just honored the restaurant as a nominee for Small Business of the Year — the irony of which isn’t lost on Mudge.

Even the name Sojourner Café is something of a paradox. The word sojourner refers to a person residing temporarily in a place.

“We’re like a landmark at this point,” Mudge said. “If I don’t tell people, they’re going to say, ‘Why didn’t you say something?’”

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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