French Valley CafeDarci Castillejos and I met a few years back through a mutual friend. She’s the owner of the French Valley Cafe at the French Valley Airport in Murrieta. We’ve been talking for years about sitting down for a visit so I could tell her story. In the meantime, Darci lost the love of her life, her husband of 34 years. Then Covid-19 struck.

The cafe’s 21st anniversary will be celebrated this June. When they opened in 2000, the airfield was whisper quiet. It was rare to witness an aircraft taking off or landing. There were no homes across the street, and the Southwest Justice Center had yet to be built. They depended on the people who worked at the airport, including a helicopter training school, for their clientele. They weren’t setting any records, but they did ok the first year, growing, and building a small staff. And then…

And then came 9-11. “It was awful,” Darci told me. There was no air traffic for three months, and business plummeted 50%. They took a huge hit, and then filed for and received an SBA disaster loan of $40,000 at favorable terms. That saved their business. And then…

And then 2008-2009 struck with the great recession. They regrouped, cut their menu and their staff. There were some lean years, but Darci said “Fortunately, I’m a planner and I’m pretty good with finances.” Once again, gradually, business started booming. And then…

And then Darci lost her husband of 34 years. He’d been retired only nine months. They had been looking forward to 20 years of “travel, and love, and family. All what you work your whole life for.” The rug had been pulled out from under her. And then…

And then came 2020 and Covid-19. “This has been the craziest roller coaster.” She and her daughter left on a Carnival cruise on March 13 and returned on March 16th.  On March 18th they were told to close their doors. They could be open for take-out only. In April business plummeted to 10% of normal. Keeping the doors open presented a huge challenge. Because 2019 had been a good year, Darci had some savings. She had to make the gut-wrenching decision to lay off 27 people, cutting her staff from 32 to five. She made every single call. Her employees were “absolutely like family.”

Through mid-May, they were open for take-out only and then were allowed to open inside at 50% capacity. Even though there was still a lot of overhead, they almost broke even in May and June. July first the hammer dropped again. Outdoor dining only. Keep in mind temperatures in the Temecula Valley during summer routinely hit 90 degrees plus and highs in the 100s are not uncommon.  Two years earlier they had invested in a very good misting system and then they added two big industrial fans.

PPP funds came through and it was “awesome.” They received an EID (Economic Impact Disaster) loan they used to remodel. They closed the cafe from mid-October through the first of November and used the funds for all new flooring, re-covered booths, a new epoxy floor in the kitchen, and all new plumbing in the kitchen. “It was basically a brand new restaurant.”

Darci decided to open for very limited seating at the bar only. Business began to pick up. French Valley Cafe is now open for limited indoor seeing and patio dining. Darci is hopeful that all will proceed according to plan and they will be allowed to fully reopen on June 15.

She remodeled the bar two years ago and she says that ultimately saved the business. Sales increased significantly, and alcohol was an easy way to make profits. Alcohol sales increased from 10-15% of sales to 30-35%. She doesn’t want to be known as just a bar. “It’s a nice addition. We just want to make people happy, give them a good experience and good food.”

Travelaire sandwichDarci wants you to know French Valley Cafe is family and dog-friendly. They’re blessed with a milli0n-dollar view. The menu has been fine-tuned through the years, and she serves what she calls “just good food.” I chose the Travelair sandwich; grilled chicken with Swiss cheese, avocado, and bacon on Parmesan sourdough bread. With coleslaw and a side of fries, it was more than enough for two meals for me. While you’re eating, you get to watch planes take off and land.

Darci Castillejos

French Valley Cafe is a nice family restaurant with an aviation theme. It’s woman and veteran-owned. Darci spent 22 years in the Navy, was deployed to Afghanistan in 2014, and retired as a Chief Petty Officer.

French Calley Cafe is open seven days a week for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch at French Valley Airport, 37600 Sky Canyon Dr, in Murrieta. 951 600-7396