Obituary: Susan “Rosie” Dunsford
December 12, 1940 – January 1, 2023
Susan “Rosie” Dunsford passed on January 1st, 2023 in her home in Calistoga, CA with her family at her bedside. She was born on December 12th, 1940 in Warehouse Point, CT, a small farming village in East Windsor, CT when she joined her father Arthur Allen Pascoe (Colebrook, CT), mother Inez Hancock Pascoe (New Britain, CT) and two elder sisters, Laura Jane and Marilyn. At a young age, Susan learned how to bake, hang from her legs in the red maple and how to pluck a chicken. She watched the farm burn down in 1949 and grieved when she found her father dead from a gunshot wound in 1955. Sue graduated from East Windsor High School in 1958 and moved on.
In 1960, Sue met her soon to be husband, Michael Dunsford Sr., on a blind date at the Rathskeller bar, aka “The Rat” in Boston, MA. It was love at first sight. Soon thereafter, they crossed the country to San Jose, CA where they were married in Willow Glen. Their first child, Laura Dunsford, was born in September 1962. Their son, Michael Dunsford Jr. was born in September 1969. Sue was a typesetter by trade, a job which became obsolete overnight with the advancement of the IBM computer. In search of a better life and new adventure, the Dunsfords moved to Lake Tahoe in 1973 to manage the Stanford Alpine Chalet in Alpine Meadows. The Chalet was a family retreat for both Stanford University faculty and alumni. Sue was the self-taught cook and Mike Sr. was the manager.
Not accustomed to handling the stress of a commercial kitchen, Sue lost her temper when there were people hanging out in the kitchen of the Chalet that weren’t supposed to be there, including a crying child. In protest she held up a can of Rosarita’s refried beans and shouted “I am not mother to millions, I am not feeder of the world…….everyone out of the kitchen!” The group immediately scattered upon command, including the staff. A few minutes later, the dishwasher (known as “Boom-Boom”) popped his head through the door and said “Rosie, can we come back to the kitchen?” The next day there was a wooden sign above the kitchen door with the engraving ‘ROSIE’S GOURMET CAFE.’ From that day forward, Sue became known as Rosie.
Rosie and Mike Sr. divorced in 1980. With an interest in pursuing a career in doing what she loved – cooking – her only available opportunity at the time was a position as a prep cook earning $4.25/hour. Rejecting this option, Rosie hatched the idea of opening her own restaurant. With only $2,200 to her name, she made a proposal to another family that owned a restaurant in downtown Tahoe City called the Hearthstone. She wanted to sublease the space for breakfast and lunch, as the Hearthstone was only open for dinner. A deal was struck.
Rosie’s concept became an overnight success and soon thereafter she took over the entire restaurant. The Hearthstone transitioned to “Rosie’s Cafe” in 1981 and became a North Lake Tahoe institution. The staff called it the “Shitty Weather Cafe,” because during heavy snow storms, people couldn’t ski, so instead they headed to Rosie’s to see their favorite bartender – Dennis Loo – for a Bloody Mary or Famous Ramos Gin Fizz, and a great breakfast. Rosie pioneered the concept of serving gourmet breakfast items in a cafe setting. Eggs Benedict, Eggs Cafe, Eggs Sardo, Swedish Oatmeal Pancakes and Sopapillas were some of the staples.
Rosie also penned a weekly column with recipes in the Tahoe World titled, “The Passionate Cook.” It was often filled with humor and good stories about “the biz” and made for a great read. The recipe of the week was an added bonus. Rosie’s Cafe burned to the ground in 1986 from a kitchen fire, and reopened in 1987. News of the fire made the International Herald Tribune and Paul Harvey’s noontime radio news program. The restaurant was eventually sold and Rosie was ready for her next adventure.
Rosie partnered with the Nilsson family to acquire the Calistoga Inn Restaurant and Brewery in 1989. The introduction of the two families stemmed from her son Michael’s friendship with the Nilssons’ son, Keith, while both were attending UC Davis and members of the rowing team. Mr. Nilsson (Ken), who enjoyed flying as a hobby, picked up Rosie in Truckee and flew her into downtown Calistoga, landing at the old gliderport. After a review of the facilities and operation, the two families struck a deal and “The Inn” was purchased from owner, Phil Rogers. The Calistoga Inn was also home to the Napa Valley Brewing Company, the county’s first micro-brewery. Rosie’s son, Michael, joined the partnership full time once he graduated from college in 1992 with a degree in winemaking and brewing science. Michael managed the business while Rosie remained in the kitchen. The Dunsfords eventually bought out the Nilsson family and they remain great friends to this day.
Calistoga was a fairly sleepy town in the late ‘80’s and early to mid ‘90’s. The most significant change Rosie made to the Calistoga Inn was to relocate its “white tablecloth” dining from the inside to the outside, which previously was limited to beers and burgers. She promoted the concept of “al fresco dining” and to this day the Calistoga Inn is known as an outdoor destination restaurant. There were many years of trials and tribulations to owning The Inn. Preferring to spend her time in the kitchen, Rosie had to delegate other responsibilities to running the company in the early years. One memorable moment was when she learned that her in-house bookkeeper never reconciled the checking account with the bank statements, which she learned after receiving a call from the bank that there were insufficient funds to cover payroll. Another story is from 1995, when half the City center was evacuated due to massive flooding, which caused a rogue propane tank to make its way down the Napa River toward the Lincoln Avenue bridge. Mother and son were willing to go down with the ship, so they opted to crack open their most expensive bottle of Cabernet at 3AM and sat in the front window of the Calistoga Inn, watching the Public Works crew operating a backhoe to push debris under the bridge. Luckily they were able to pull the tank from the river before hitting the bridge, ultimately saving the day – and The Inn. There was also a structural fire at the Calistoga Inn at 2AM on August 28, 2012, better known in the family as “Dia Del Fuego,” which closed The Inn for ten months and required major reconstruction. Once the fire was extinguished, fireman Joe Russo’s assessment was that he didn’t see any reason that The Inn couldn’t be open for lunch that day. The family still laughs about that.
Rosie was quick to make friends in Calistoga and became a fixture that advocated for a healthy business community. She personally prepped, cooked and served the weekly lunches for the Calistoga Rotary Club for many years, became a board member and president of the Calistoga Chamber of Commerce, resurrected the Calistoga Beer & Sausage Festival, which was the Chamber’s primary fundraiser, and served a five year term as a Calistoga City Council Member. Her pro-business mentality began the shift to a more progressive mindset on the council. She was part of the council that defeated the Mt. Washington timeshare project (now Solage) and created the Franchise Ordinance, which prohibited Taco Bell and Baskin-Robbins from opening a store in the old movie theater (now Copperfield’s). She recognized the importance of protecting Calistoga’s small town character, and that in the long term, that would be good for business. Calistoga was turning a corner.
As with Rosie’s Cafe in Tahoe City, the Calistoga Inn became the heartbeat of the town. With a bustling Happy Hour, live entertainment and local events, such as the annual Pauper’s Feast, Fat Tuesday and St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, these were opportunities to bring friends and neighbors together for a good time and at an affordable price. Rosie was always quick to participate in local charitable fundraisers, either offering her culinary services or donating gift certificates.
Unbeknownst to her, Rosie actually became “mother to millions…feeder of the world.” She was respected for her work ethic, sensibility and humor, as well as her calm, pragmatic approach to life. She was an old soul that learned to “handle the heat” of the kitchen. She often gave great advice, as a mother would, in its simplest form and always easy to digest. She also knew that “the shortest path to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” and as such, most of her dearest friends were men. She had great lady friends as well, some fondly known as the “Golden Girls,” who patronized Happy Hour at The Inn on the regular. Rosie loved chatting with the local bar flies and most of all, she cared deeply about the staff members that worked for her. The respect and heartfelt admiration was reciprocated and oftentimes throughout the year, old Rosie’s Cafe employees would stop by The Inn to see their former boss who helped shape their lives and prepared them for life’s many challenges.
Rosie Dunsford is survived by her daughter Laura Dunsford Rombauer and son-in-law “KR” Koerner Rombauer III, Michael Dunsford Jr. and partner Lindsay Faith Weinhold, grandchildren Keaton Dunsford, Ella Dunsford and Ransome Rombauer, along with Mr. Coop, her beloved Norwich Terrier. Rosie’s cause of death was pancreatic cancer. She thanks the California legislators for passing SB380. She was 82 and, “Please, don’t feed the short, fat dog.”
Rosie’s Celebration of Life will be held on Sunday, April 23rd, 2023 at 4:00 PM at the Calistoga Inn Restaurant & Brewery. Please RSVP via EventBrite here: https://bit.ly/3ierW5j If you would like to make a donation to a local charity in her name, please consider Friends of the Calistoga Library or Calistoga Cares Food Pantry (https://www.canv.org/food-bank/).
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