Against the advice of well-meaning colleagues, Erna Ziegler took over Adult Education’s tiny food service concession at Wake Center in January 2004. The professional caterer from San Francisco, who enjoys challenges, was determined to have some fun and to try to at least break even in the process.
“I am not in this for money,” she told the Goleta Grapevine wryly. “It is a labor of love.” It would have to be, when the most expensive items on the menu are smoked salmon, sandwiches with garnishes, or the cheese platter, for $4.
Her customer service philosophy is straightforward: “People want something that’s healthy, and they want it quick because they don’t have much time” between classes. “It should be small and affordable, and most of the things I serve here are like that.
“Not only does it have to taste good and be priced right, the presentation has a lot to do with how they feel about what they eat,” she added. “I’m a closet artist at heart, so presentation is something I cherish.”
A compact serving window at the northwest corner of the Wake administration bungalow is the public face of Erna’s Corner. Flowers, real and artificial, backdrop the dishes artfully wrapped and displayed on a small counter attached below this window. A garland of holiday lights festoons the serving front.
From the outside, most of the narrow room seems filled with stainless steel sinks, a large preparation table, refrigeration unit, and storage pantry. A small microwave squats atop a cabinet.
Through this window come the healthy foods Erna — no one calls her Mrs. Ziegler — prepares, ranging from soup and whole grain half-sandwiches to the salmon and fruit and cheese plates. It is inspected annually by the county Public Health Department, and Erna proudly displays her safety certification on an inside wall.
Asked how the Wake Center’s former “Snack Shack” became Erna’s Corner, she quips, “Well, it’s on a corner—and I usually know what people would want.” If she is not sure, she’s quick to experiment, including specialty items, like casseroles, she prepares if the mood moves her.
When Continuing Education classes are in session, the stylish 80-year-old, who makes most of her own jewelry, usually devotes 50-plus hours a week, spread over six, even seven days, to satisfying people’s hunger. That does not count the time invested in shopping for ingredients.
Many Adult Ed students welcome her careful touches. “I enjoy being creative and I suppose I’m encouraged by the fact I’ve felt more appreciated here by the students here than I’ve felt anywhere else,” reported Erna. “I’m also an ear for the students, and they tell me everything.” One former programmer for Adult Ed compared Erna’s standup café to the fictional pub on the 1980s TV series Cheers.
That could stem from her friendly face, the pleasure she takes in directing new students to their classrooms (when asked), or the fact Erna spent nearly two decades as a therapist in Oklahoma. Her specialty was treating chronic schizophrenics, she said, and she still uses those listening skills.
Erna currently shares a Goleta house with a daughter and a son-in-law, Ovie and Karen Mora. She says she always enjoyed the area when visiting from San Francisco but never saw a way to make a move work. It was while Ovie was attending a computer class at Wake that he learned of the job that Erna now fills.
Once she was offered the Wake food service, the San Francisco native decided to split her life between the Bay Area and the South Coast. She co-owns Cow Hollow Catering with the other of her two daughters, Diane Theodorelos. The partners have for 22 years been the exclusive catering and food concessionaires for the 1,000-seat theater in the Palace of Fine Arts. Erna still spends her summers there. A son, Jim Theodorelos, lives in Santa Rosa with his family.
Should one wonder about the strain of this kind of split-city life, Erna will chuckle and assure you, “I have a great life, here and in San Francisco, thank you.” And that inner artist has moved out of the closet and into Tienda Ho, with a jewelry display at the Santa Barbara store. Just look for Erna’s corner.