Valentina’s Organic Bistro & Bakery: come for the food, stay for the love
While growing up in Russia, Valentina Masterz always loved the sound of American English, even though she couldn’t understand a word.
“It had a beautiful sound,” she said. “Like a bird chirping.”
After getting a master’s degree in music and completing two years of medical school in Russia, Valentina came to the United States as an exchange student. She was pre-med at Pacific Union College in the Napa Valley when she met her husband, Ron, an American.
Once she completed her undergraduate work, Valentina’s dream of becoming a doctor was shot down when she couldn’t secure a student loan because she hadn’t yet become an American citizen.
“That was a real disappointment,” she said. “But looking back, it all turned out. I wouldn’t be here now.”
After college, the couple eventually settled in Sacramento and gave birth to their first daughter, Nykol. It was an extremely stressful time for the young parents, as their daughter became seriously ill.
“At nine months Nykol would get fevers as high as 107 every three weeks for up to six days at a time,” said Valentina. “The doctors could not figure out what was wrong.”
A year later, Ron and Valentina had a second daughter, Neana, who — thankfully — was healthy. But years continued to drag on with Nykol’s chronic high fevers and no diagnosis. When Nykol was six, Ron and Valentina heard about a business opportunity — a small restaurant for sale in a town called Grass Valley. They were looking for a feeling of community, which they hadn’t found in their busy Sacramento neighborhood.
“I had never heard of the word ‘loneliness’ until I came to the U.S.,” said Valentina. “I come from a very social country — in Sacramento the neighbors didn’t even talk to each other.”
They decided to take a leap of faith and sell their FedEx Ground business and buy the small restaurant — then known as Hollywood Sweets — on Sutton Way. They felt instantly embraced by the Nevada County community, said Valentina, but their work lives were overshadowed by Nykol’s worsening illness.
“When Nykol was six, I was at my darkest moment,” said Valentina. “She was only 33 pounds. She got pneumonia and stayed in the hospital for six months, then was transferred to Sacramento, then UC San Francisco. She was dying and there was no diagnosis.”
While telling a customer about her daughter’s condition, a woman standing in line overheard. She was Nevada City acupuncturist Lynn Fassler.
“I told Valentina to bring her daughter in, but she didn’t know anything about acupuncture,” said Fassler. “So it took some convincing.”
On the very first visit with Fassler, Nykol’s temperature — which had remained at 106 for months — dropped four degrees.
“Then Lynn said to bring her back tomorrow,” said Valentina, who was astounded. “It dropped another four degrees.”
While Fassler said she focused on treating Nykol’s liver function, she will not definitively take credit for Nykol’s recovery, but she admits the timing was remarkable. In sync with regular acupuncture for the next six months, there was no doubt Nykol was getting better. Within a year, the fevers were gone.
But there was yet another health component Fassler was eager to address.
“Lynn asked us what we were feeding Nykol and I told her McDonald’s and Taco Bell – high calorie foods,” said Valentina. “Lynn said, ‘If you want her to live, you need to change your family’s eating habits.’”
With Fassler’s guidance, the family began researching healthy foods and began eating an all organic diet, rich in leafy greens. With her extensive medical background, Valentina took a scientific approach when it came to preparing nutritious meals and quickly embraced new eating habits. Her new practices spilled over into her business — Valentina’s Bistro and Bakery — and soon more organic options appeared on the menu.
“America is struggling health wise,” she said. “My new goal was to serve food that is healing, not poisonous. As far as I’m concerned, Lynn saved my daughter’s life. I told her, ‘When you are old, I will take care of you — that is my gift to you.’”
After six years in their previous location, Valentina said they found themselves struggling to stay afloat due to astronomical utility bills, which ranged from $3,900 to $4,900 monthly. To the dismay of their customers, Valentina and Ron couldn’t pay off their bills and were forced to close.
Although it seemed like the end of a beloved business, as it turns out the customers wouldn’t hear of it.
“One customer, a landlord, asked us if we were interested in reopening, only this time in his building,” said Valentina. “It was amazing — our old customers raised $20,000 and we borrowed $100,000 and here we are. The people of this town have the most amazing soul and heart. It’s beyond beautiful — my customers are my family.”
In September of 2014, Valentina’s Organic Bistro & Bakery opened its doors just down the street from their previous location.
“I was afraid to open the first PG&E bill,” said Valentina, with a laugh. “When I saw it I breathed a sigh of relief — and the whole place is air-conditioned, which is good for the staff.”
In preparation of the new opening, nearly 200 people applied to the 15 positions available.
“I was looking for people with good personalities who were not afraid to love,” said Valentina. “They are like my kids.”
In addition, Valentina hired her younger sister, Albina Sprenger, who is now married and lives in the area. Their parents, Nikolai and Anna Terzi, are currently spending two months here after not seeing their daughters for six years.
Today, the menu at Valentina’s is almost exclusively organic, including the muffins, cookies, Challah bread, croissants and turnovers baked on the premises (Valentina comes in at 4 a.m.). The meat in their dishes include organic Smart Chicken and Nevada County grass-fed and grass-finished beef. They only use raw, organic cold-pressed olive oil and all beans and rice are pre-soaked for 24 to 30 hours, which Valentina says is good for the digestive system.
In addition to a full organic juice bar, they serve blended or iced smoothies, Peet’s Coffee and David Rio Chai. The popular wraps, burritos and quesadillas are served with brown or white rice, wheat, flour or gluten-free tortillas, cheese, a choice or organic meat, and greens and vegetables. Salad options include their trademark Asian, spinach, Greek, cranberry feta and grilled chicken. Soups, such as Wednesday’s kale, potato and chicken, are made daily during cooler months.
Today, Valentina and Ron’s daughters are healthy and happy 9- and 10-year-olds. When asked about her mom, Nykol said she “loves to make sad people happy.”
While Valentina is always up front, warmly greeting customers, Ron says he is more comfortable working behind the scenes, cooking and bookkeeping.
“Even though I’m more of an introvert, the best part of this business has been connecting with the community,” he said. “People have been so generous — it was hard to receive help, but we wouldn’t have re-opened without people’s generosity. And of course the restaurant would not exist without Valentina.”
“It has been very humbling — we are so grateful,” echoed Valentina. “And I really think that if not for this restaurant, my daughter would not be alive.”
Every morning, before the sun comes up, Valentina says she walks into her empty restaurant and sits down on the cozy couch near the fireplace.
“It probably sounds funny, but I sit there and say a little chant to myself,” she said. “I say, ‘I hope every person who comes here feels loved.’ We don’t have enough of that in this world.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.
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