The Brothers of Strawberry Creek
An African-American owned, eco-friendly inn and boutique hotel?
After some recent Outdoor Afro Facebook fan chatter about Strawberry Creek, I decided to dig a little deeper and reach out to Rodney Williams, one of the property owners. Rodney was happy to shed light on how the B&B was created in the scenic San Jacinto mountains of Southern California. This thought provoking interview is not only about the inn, but also an opening discussion regarding what is possible to achieve in life in spite of odds or perceptions. Here is part one of our two-part interview:
What inspired you to become an inn keeper?
I was doing actuarial work for a large health insurance company, and just did not feel fulfilled or like I was contributing anything directly positive to the life of the average person. My first attempts at resolving this inner conflict involved looking for an art form outside of work that would hopefully fill in what was missing. That led me to a stint in culinary school in the evenings and on weekends (the art form I always gravitated towards, even before I considered it an art form). It was a blast, the most fun and passion I had experienced in my life so far, but the contrast between my daytime misery and night-time elation only highlighted the underlying issue.
On a last-minute soul-searching trip alone, I stayed in a B&B for the first time. The minute I walked in the skies opened, there was lightning, angels singing, light bulbs–all the ‘epiphany metaphors’ that come to mind. Without knowing anything about what it took, how profitable it might be, or what it was really like running a B&B, I knew it would bring me joy. Besides, I was already spending a good portion of my salary decorating my house, gardening, cooking, and throwing parties. ‘I might as well get paid for it’ was my thinking, I guess.
I spent the next six or so years trying to talk myself out of the idea, and having other people try even harder to talk me out of it. As luck would have it, I met Ian at a time when he was starting to re-evaluate his relationship with his pediatric nursing career. After years of caring for and getting close to kids with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses, the straw that broke the camel’s back was his niece’s cancer diagnosis. The already thin wall of separation between professional and personal, perhaps necessary for this kind of work, came crashing down. Now there were two people open to doing the unthinkable. And the rest, as they say, is history.
What is your connection to the Idyllwild area?
Originally, there was no connection to speak of. It seems funny to say that now because we feel so deeply connected to this community, and we very much think of it as home. At first, all we knew was that we wanted to purchase an existing inn with 8 to 12 rooms, close to pristine wilderness. Our preference was to stay in Southern California (for the weather), but we were quickly convinced by ‘knowledgeable experts’ that we needed to drop that from our list of requirements.
There simply weren’t enough B&Bs in Southern California to produce an inventory of properties available for purchase at any given time, and there were really no pockets of affordable real estate left in the region, much less affordable real estate near nature. We must have looked at 20 properties in Washington State and throughout Northern California, with none of them feeling exactly right. Actually, a few felt pretty close to right, but were either over-priced for the revenue they generated, saddled with legal or zoning issues, or in one case, snatched up by another buyer while we were deciding to make an offer on the plane ride home.
Finally our agent advised us that we had seen everything on the market that fit within our parameters (that must be an old realtor’s trick to pull out when you think you’ve got a commitment-phobic client, but he was probably close enough to being right). We chose and made an offer on what we thought was the best choice of what we had seen (in Sonoma County, on the Russian River), and pretty soon we had come to terms on a price, notice had been given at our respective jobs, and our houses were on the market and in escrow (this was 2004, so the Southern California housing market was close to the peak of its frenzy).
Although we both got mild stomach pains every time we drove up to what was about to be our new inn, neither of us brought it up, brushing it off as nerves related to the impending big change. On one level we were relieved when the inspection reports started coming in with details about past floods, termite issues, and badly needed roof work. The sellers were unwilling to re-negotiate the price or to fix anything, so we had no choice but to cancel the deal. The only small problem was that we would both very soon be jobless and homeless! I decided at that point to stop listening to ‘the experts’ and follow my own instincts more.
As part of our early research, I had acquired a book called ‘Great Towns of Southern California‘, by David Vokac (there’s a Northern California version too, as well as a ‘Great Towns of America’ version for your readers who like discovering great under-the-radar small towns). Idyllwild was the only one of the eighteen towns featured that we hadn’t been to or at least heard of. A little online research revealed that several inns had very recently been listed for sale. What did we have to lose? We hopped in the car, and after driving through majestic mountain scenery we thought you couldn’t find in Southern California, we reached the most charming village filled with artists, galleries, quaint shops, and nice people! To top it all off, there had been a light dusting of snow the night before. We were hooked. The rest is…well, you know…
What do you think people are most surprised by when they visit the property?
We try to make sure there are as few surprises as possible when people arrive, through our website and our reservations process, but there aren’t a lot of pictures of us on our website (something we will definitely re-consider for the next website update). So some of our guests are surprised to be greeted by two young-ish (or so we like to think) African-American males. Most are pleasantly surprised, or at worst indifferent, but there is a small minority who are stricken with the compelling urge to write nasty reviews, letters to the editor, their congressmen, or whoever will listen about our obvious illegitimacy as a B&B and as innkeepers. Of course their complaints never specifically mention ethnicity or age or sexual orientation, and to be fair they probably really believe that what they say is bothering them is truly the underlying issue. They’re our version of ‘the birthers’. We deal with them the way our President does: overlook the ranting, address the issue about which they are explicitly complaining if it has any legitimacy at all, and then get back to work making sure we are helping to create memorable experiences for our guests.
Check back for the second part of our interview with Rodney. Meanwhile, take a peek at the Strawberry Creek website!