A couple of months ago, Crista Luedtke — the founder of Boon Hotel + Spa in California’s Sonoma County — received a handwritten letter out of the blue. According to Luedtke, it read, “I just want to thank you. We’ve come to your property several times, and I’m so inspired by what you did to launch your own business and create a brand that I finally made the leap to start my own company. I left the corporate world, and I have my own clothing line now.”
Luedtke said she got teary, but it wasn’t the first time this entrepreneur has heard feedback like this. In 2008, Luedtke decided to ditch a job in the mortgage business and open a boutique hotel in the sleepy little town of Guerneville, followed by a restaurant where she’s also the chef, a craft cocktail bar, a gourmet market and more. Singlehandedly, Luedtke transformed Guerneville into a buzzing vacation getaway.
That’s not all: This multi-faceted visionary caught the eyes of TV producers and was asked to be on Guy Fieri’s Food Network show “Grocery Games,” where she was named Triple Grand Champion. She’s also starring in a documentary that is making the rounds at film festivals and is working on a docu-series about other entrepreneurs who are reinventing the main streets of America.
Despite her success, Luedtke says she feels most rewarded when she hears that she is helping other people transform their lives. “It feels really good when someone says, ‘Wow, you changed me.’ I think that’s what it’s about for me,” says Luedtke.
We caught up with Luedtke to find out how she got her start, what she’s up to next and her advice for other aspiring entrepreneurs who want to make a change — and make a difference.
Laura Begley Bloom: How did you decide to open a hotel?
Crista Luedtke: My brand is named after my dog, whose name is Boon. “Boon” means a gift or a blessing. I was traveling a lot for work, and I would always be sad to leave him, and I thought, “Life could look different, I could work from home, I could have a lifestyle job.”
I wanted to open a restaurant, but my mom was like, “You know what that does to people? Don’t do it. Maybe you should open a B&B.” When I traveled with work, I always wanted to stay in groovy little boutique hotels. The travelers who go to these places are very like minded: They’re all seeking an experience and affordable luxury.
So I made the move to Sonoma County. My criteria was that I wanted to be within two hours of San Francisco, because I wanted Bay Area clientele. I wanted to be in Wine Country. And it needed to be affordable — and by affordable, that was a two-prong approach for me. I needed to be able to afford [to open a hotel] without a lot of other investors, because I figured I’m willing to lose my own money, but I don’t want to lose anyone else’s. I also wanted it to be affordable, so that people could come and have a staycation.
I launched the hotel 10 years ago. A year after that, I launched my first restaurant, which is called Boon Eat + Drink, and they’re about a half a mile from one another. Two years after that, I helped co-found and create Big Bottom Market, a gourmet market, deli and café that I recently sold to my business partner. Then after that, I thought, “Well, of course every little town needs a mezcal and bourbon bar, so why not?”
Begley Bloom: What was your career background?
Luedtke: I grew up in Wisconsin. When my parents divorced, we went to Arizona. I lived until 23 in Scottsdale. Then I caught the gay, and I moved to San Francisco and went into the pharmaceutical/biotech industry. I had a really good run, but I wasn’t passionate about it. A friend was like, “You should be a mortgage broker,” and I was like, “Mortgage brokers are slimy.” So I went to work for a boutique firm that was owned by my friend’s husband and saw a whole different side of that business. But I did it right as the economy was taking a dump. Most people bailed, but I stayed. Rates dropped; it was refi boom. I couldn’t keep up with the number of refis, because people who kept their jobs — or those who were on the bubble — were quickly refinancing before they lost their jobs.
I stuck it out because that was when the hotel was opening. My mom was in Reno and losing her job, so I said, “Mom, come down. You can run the desk Monday through Friday. I’ll stay in the city and crank out mortgages, because somebody’s got to pay for this thing.” I kept my day job for the first two years and commuted back and forth. So it was seven days a week constantly on, but it’s what I needed to do to start it.”
Begley Bloom: You do all the branding, concepting and design. Where did you learn your skills?
Luedtke: I fell into that. My mom has an interior design background, so I was always around it as a kid. It’s been fun to create the whole experience, from the look to the food. I know enough to be dangerous in all these arenas. I was not classically trained as a chef, but my parents had restaurants growing up, so I was always around food, always in the kitchen. Then I started digging deep, learning on my own and spending time around other chefs. It’s about getting in there and doing it. It doesn’t matter how you get there — you’ve just got to get there. It’s been nothing but opportunities ever since.
Begley Bloom: Why Guerneville?
Luedtke: It’s an easy quick trip, an hour and a half from San Francisco. The weather is incredible, and you’ve got the river, the Redwoods and the ocean. But it’s funny, I almost didn’t want to do Guerneville. I had been going to Guerneville in my twenties. It was sort of like the Palm Springs of the north.
Originally, it was a logging town in the late 1800s, but it became a vacation destination mecca in the 1950s, when wealthy San Franciscans would go there to summer at the river. Then in the ’70s, the hippies came in. In the 80s it transformed into a gay party destination. When I was going, it was just a fun getaway.
I was super keen on finding something in Wine Country, but Healdsburg was priced out for me and Cloverdale felt too far. At the time in Guerneville, every storefront was for rent, and it was seriously hurting. But I knew that it had potential. I had gone there so many times and I knew it was going to spill over. It had been a hotspot. It just needed someone to breathe some life into it.
Begley Bloom: How did you find the hotel?
Luedtke: It was an old miner’s camp that was converted into a hotel in the late ’70s or ’80s. Over the years it had changed hands and eventually went into disrepair. I bought a junker. We just went fast and furious. My brother’s a contractor, and he helped with some stuff. I had friends who would come up and help paint rooms. It took a village, and we got it done. I blew all the cash that I made on the sale of my house in San Francisco, and probably put $100,000 on credit cards.
Begley Bloom: How much did it cost?
Luedtke: $1.2 million. I sold my house in San Francisco for $1.15 million. A two-bedroom, one-bath in exchange for a 14-room hotel. I transformed the place: I wanted it to be very minimalist and clean, with a mid-century modern, Danish feel.
Begley Bloom: How did you decide to start a little empire in Guerneville?
Luedtke: Being in Guerneville, a lot of the businesses that I started were selfishly motivated, like I wanted a good place to eat, so I opened my own restaurant. I wanted a nice place to drink, so I did my bar. Now, I don’t have to leave town. You can’t find a spot on Main Street anymore. Everything is taken up, which is great.
Begley Bloom: Tell me about your TV career.
Luedtke: A few years ago, I was asked to come on the Food Network as a contestant on Guy Fieri’s Grocery Games. I won my episode. And they said, “Chef will you come back? We’re going to do a champions round,” and I said, “Sure, why not? I won $18,000 in one day, I’m happy to take another crack at this.” So they brought back 16 of us, and I happened to win the whole thing, which was completely unexpected. It was a game changer for me. Now I’ve made it to the other side of the table and have been doing culinary judging on Grocery Games.
It’s been super fun to be a legit culinary authority, if you will, and to meet the people that I’ve met — Richard Blais, Jonathan Waxman, Cat Cora, Rocco DiSpirito. I never thought I was going to end up in this little circle, but that whole part got me thinking, “What else is there?” About two years ago, I started working with some documentary filmmakers on a food and travel show that just went up on ReachTV. It’s called Lost and Taste.
Begley Bloom: Tell me about the show.
Luedtke: It’s essentially me going to various countries where I have a connection and diving into that culture through food. These are sort of lean-in, three- to seven-minute self-contained little episodes. That’s just the start. We’re hoping someone might grab it.
Begley Bloom: You’re also the star of a documentary, right?
Luedtke: One of my regulars approached me one day and said, “Can I talk to you for a second?” And I thought, “Oh, God. Did she get bad service, did we make her kids sick?” She said, “I don’t know if you know, but Eric [her husband] and I are documentary filmmakers. We’re on our way to Sundance, but we’ve been thinking about wanting to do our own project, and I would love to do a documentary on you and all the changes that you’ve made in Guerneville. She said, “We’ve just been seeing all these cool places open up, and then realized they were all you, and we think there’s a story.” They love to do pieces about powerful, strong women. We just completed our 24th film festival. It’s called Empire on Main Street.
Begley Bloom: What’s the documentary about?
Luedtke: I wanted to share my story, I wanted to say, “Look, while it seems all fancy and fun, it’s not without struggle.” There’s also the premise that I wanted to chase my dream, but at what cost? I was married when I started the hotel, and my wife and I divorced. She was not so interested in my go, go, go ways. We are still best friends, but I’m now partnered with someone who says, “Do what you need to do. This is who you are, and this is what makes you so alive. You inspire people.” My parents were in the restaurant business, they got divorced. My brother was a chef, he got divorced. It owns you. It consumes you. But if you love it, it’s what you should do.
Begley Bloom: What do you love about what you do?
Luedtke: I love that not one single day looks the same in my week.
Begley Bloom: What’s your advice to somebody who wants to do something like this?
Luedtke: My advice is to surround yourself with very smart people, and learn through the mistakes that they’ve made, so that you don’t repeat history. I looked at what this town was missing. I wanted something that would be a niche that was not being filled by anyone else, and I knew I needed to be unique. When opening the restaurant, it was also very much how I wanted to eat. Do a lot of homework. I read the book, So — You Want to be an Innkeeper. It scared the crap out of me. People say this all the time, “My husband and I we always have had this dream of having a hotel.” You know? It sounds glamorous, but you’re scrubbing toilets. This will be the hardest job you’ll ever do. And you’ve got to put this shiny face on every day for your guests. If not, you probably won’t be successful. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lifestyle change, and I wouldn’t change anything for it, but I have made my own financial personal sacrifices, so that I have the quality of life that I want to have.
Begley Bloom: Do you feel like you’re living the dream, now?
Luedtke: I do. Certainly, there are days where things are crazy, and you’re like, “It would be so nice to have a 9-to-5 and a corporate card. But I wouldn’t change it.
Begley Bloom: I just don’t know how you do all that you do.
Luedtke: I don’t either. My partner thinks I’m super human. Maybe it’s the Midwest upbringing, that strong work ethic, but I don’t sleep much. You get a lot more done when you’re not sleeping.