‘All about Paradise’

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

Nicki Jones opened Nic’s restaurant after the Camp Fire to create a comfortable gathering place for survivors.

After the Camp Fire, it never occurred to Nicki Jones that she wouldn’t return to Paradise.

She’d lived there since 1998, when she and her late husband, Bob, traded the hustle and bustle of the Bay Area for the Ridge.

For Jones, the way the town made her feel then is hard to describe. She recalls telling her husband, “For the first time in my entire life, I feel totally at home.”

“And I still feel that way even after the fire,” she told the CN&R on a recent afternoon. “I’m all about Paradise.”

Jones, 75, owns and operates two businesses downtown on the Skyway: clothing store Bobbi’s Boutique—which she had to relocate after the fire destroyed its original location, alongside her longtime shop Heaven Scent Candles and Gifts—and Nic’s, a deli and bar.

“I bought this building in January [2019] and just jumped on it,” she said. “It was just important to me to open as soon as I can … to make a statement about, hey, we can deal with this.”

After extensive renovations, Bobbi’s opened in April; Nic’s, the first new business to open on the Ridge post-Camp Fire, followed in September. Since then, Jones and her new eatery have become a symbol of hope on the Ridge.

Part of what makes Paradise so special, Jones said, is its tight-knit community. That’s why, without a lick of experience in food service, she decided to open Nic’s—to hold on to that spirit amid the chaos. She teamed up with April Kelly, a Paradise native who’d built a career in the restaurant industry in Hawaii before moving back home shortly before the fire. Kelly crafted the menu and the women assembled a team of employees. Almost all are from the Ridge, and most of them lost their homes.

The place is hard to miss. It’s on the corner of Skyway and Fir—a cozy, cabin-like building with a green metal roof and log pillars. Inside, the bar serves as the centerpiece. In the back-right corner sits the deli. Tables are spread out here and there, along with wall-mounted TVs for enjoying music and sports. On the walls are sepia-toned photographs of Paradise—the way it used to be, before Nov. 8, 2018.

On a recent afternoon, Jones was running the boutique, ringing up customers and providing a second opinion on outfits. One woman wondered aloud if the cardigan she found was the right size. Jones weighed in: “It looks cute. But here’s the question, and this is what I tell people: ‘If you’re not a 100 percent, don’t do it.’ It looks lovely, but you need to be comfortable.”

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

Chris LeGate tends the bar at Nic’s.

Meanwhile, Nic’s was a flurry of activity: Folks dug into sandwiches while a group chatted over beer and wine at the bar. The businesses are connected by a pane-glass door. That day, customers went in and out, grabbing a sandwich at Nic’s after shopping, or vice versa.

It’s convenient for Jones, too. She rarely sits still and, that afternoon, flitted between both locations, problem-solving, attending to customers and checking in with her employees.

At the bar, Charlie Cruz visited with his family. He told the CN&R there’s a tangible positivity at Nic’s that is wonderful. Though his home in Butte Valley survived the blaze, Cruz’s entire community of friends scattered overnight. Because of that, his family relocated to Oroville. Nic’s is one of the places where they often get together with friends, to stay connected and lift each other up.

His sister-in-law Patrice Paradela had only good things to say about Nic’s, too. A few months ago, she walked into the restaurant after a planned surprise party for her son fell through, desperate to make something else work in a few days. Not only did Nic’s get her a reservation, but the employees helped her decorate as well.

As the day wound down, a couple of employees clocked out, taking off their aprons and sidling up to the bar, where they enjoyed happy hour glasses of chardonnay. Jones came over and they shared smiles. It was a good, busy day, they agreed—the kind of day that makes up for the slow ones.

Overall, business is going well. In fact, Bobbi’s made a better profit last April, May and June than that same time period in the previous two years, before the fire, Jones shared. And Nic’s had a full house for its Valentine’s Day dinner.

“Thanks to the support of the community and outlying areas, we’re doing very well,” Jones said. “It’s going to take a while because it is a new business and it is a restaurant, but we have a good reputation, and I think we have really good food.”

Jones added that she’s relieved things are going well—she knew the risk she was taking. When Nic’s opened, debris still was being hauled off the Ridge. Town officials estimate the population is a scant 3,000 to 5,000, compared to 26,000 pre-fire.

In an ideal future, Jones’ goal is for her businesses to grow alongside the town. But as for what that’ll look like, she has no clue.

“The excitement is to see what happens,” she said. “It’s exciting to be part of … something good coming out of what was a tragedy.”

As Jones told one customer that afternoon, she could ultimately end up breaking even on both businesses, and that would be OK by her.

“I feel very fortunate to be able to do this,” she told the CN&R. “Mostly I’m pleased because my overriding goal was to have a gathering place for people that’s comfortable, [where] people laugh and talk with their friends. And I observe this all the time. And that makes my heart happy.”