Peter Monson and Jessa Berkey, romantic and business partners, were the pub's general managers before buying the business. For 40 years, Fox & Goose has stood as a bastion of tradition in downtown Sacramento. Carla Meyer The Sacramento Bee
Peter Monson and Jessa Berkey, romantic and business partners, were the pub's general managers before buying the business. For 40 years, Fox & Goose has stood as a bastion of tradition in downtown Sacramento. Carla Meyer The Sacramento Bee

Restaurant News & Reviews

New owners maintain tradition at Sacramento’s Fox & Goose

By Carla Meyer

cmeyer@sacbee.com

December 04, 2015 04:01 PM

UPDATED December 05, 2015 10:48 AM

The regulars at Fox & Goose have given Peter Monson grief since he was a busser barely into his 20s and freshly arrived from the Midwest. They won’t stop now just because he co-owns the place.

Peter Robertson, a four-times-a-week patron of the R Street public house, said he’s tracked, mostly from his spot at Fox & Goose’s standing-only bar, Monson’s growth as he moved up to bar manager and – as of September – co-owner.

“He used to weigh probably 12, 15 pounds less,” Robertson deadpanned about Monson.

Robertson’s joke delights Monson, 37, who sits nearby with his romantic and business partner, Jessa Berkey, 33. The pair were Fox & Goose managers before they bought the business in September from longtime owner Allyson Dalton.

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The bar area smells slightly of hops on this late Friday afternoon, which has drawn regulars such as Robertson, a 68-year-old retired risk manager, and Ted Roworth, a bridge engineer and transplanted Brit in his 60s who began coming here in the 1970s looking for a bit of home. More pervasive, though, is an air of camaraderie that extends from the men at the bar to Monson and Berkey, who sit at a nearby table.

They’re the pub’s first owners outside the Dalton family. Allyson Dalton’s parents, Bill and Denise, opened the pub at 10th and R streets in 1975, when today’s R Street Corridor renaissance was a glint in nobody’s Guinness-fuzzed eye. Back then, the neighborhood’s other main source of entertainment was Old Ironsides, a block away on S.

Forty years later, Fox & Goose stands as a bastion of tradition – of customers happily withstanding long waits on weekends for banger-and-bean “full English” breakfasts, of manly gatherings at the bar at pint o’clock, of the live music so closely tied to the vitality of this and most other pubs – on a street that now values the latest thing.

Just down R lie the new Warehouse Artist Lofts buildings, where one can buy a poke salad of raw fish, at Fish Face, or grab a cocktail and a Prohibition haircut, in the same building, at Bottle & Barlow.

But Berkey and Monson won’t be chasing what’s new to try to keep up. Though they are not Daltons, they are part of the larger Fox & Goose family – especially Monson, who has worked there for 16 years compared with Berkey’s two.

“We know who we are,” Monson said. “What makes Fox & Goose so great is people have a special (association): ‘I had my first beer there,’ or ‘I met my wife there.’ 

Monson and Berkey said they plan to make improvements, but in a subtle manner Fox & Goose management always has favored, so as not to startle the natives.

“It happens incrementally so that people build it into their experience – ‘Oh, the place never changed for years,’ ” Monson said. For example, many customers think “the menus have been the same since the ’80s,” he said. “But if you go get a menu from the ’80s, it is like half the size.”

The stalwarts at the bar say the transition has been seamless.

“As a regular, you always have some trepidation about who the new people are, and what kind of huge changes they are going to make,” Robertson said. “We were pretty much delighted that these two were going to take over.”

Adds Roworth, the Brit, between sips of Old Speckled Hen: “They’re the best,” he said. “They looked after me. Allyson was the best. Allyson’s dad was the best. He was ruder than these guys, though.”

Mythology surrounds any place where drinks flow, even dumpy corner bars. It runs especially deep at Fox & Goose, which is huge (6,600 square feet) and seems a lot older than 40. It sits in a 1913 building that once held the Fuller Paint & Glass Co., and its rustic wood floors and brick walls predate those of all the speakeasy-style places in town. The name comes from a 200-year-old pub in Bill Dalton’s hometown of Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.

It’s enough of an institution that Mayor Kevin Johnson and former Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg showed up for its 40th anniversary party in June. Steinberg, a current Sacramento mayoral candidate, doesn’t just pop in on special occasions.

He ate breakfast there several times a week when he was on the City Council and in the Legislature, he said. He still comes in about once a month.

“It is part of the fabric of Sacramento,” Steinberg said. “It is a place where a lot of deals have gotten made over the years, and a lot of initiatives have been planned. … Ally always put a real premium on customer service, and it felt like you were coming to a place that was kind of like a home.”

Dalton selling the pub is “in a way kind of sad,” he said. “But in a way it is great, because the new owners are committed to keeping what is special about Fox & Goose special.”

Fox & Goose family

Allyson Dalton took over the business in 1995, and in 2011 purchased the larger building containing it, which covers most of the block between 10th and 11th. She has been developing it ever since, expanding Fox & Goose in 2012 to include new bathrooms and a private dining room. New lofts and office spaces were completed more recently. Dalton also owns commercial properties in Auburn.

“Being a developer, and managing other properties was more than I needed to do” along with running a restaurant, Dalton said by phone.

Dalton, 47, does not have children. But she has a mentee in Monson, a Minneapolis native who rose from bartender to bar manager and to Dalton’s right-hand man in managing the R Street property before Dalton named him Fox & Goose co-general manager, with Berkey, in February.

Berkey, a stage actress and former talent agent who grew up in a Chicago suburb, came on board the business a few years ago to handle private dining. She now covers human resources (the pub employees 45 people) and other administrative areas as well. Their general-manager duties warmed Berkey and Monson up for the ownership roles they assumed in September.

“It is never easy to sell, but selling to Pete and Jessa is the right decision because they will continue that legacy,” Dalton said. “I have known Pete for over 15 years, and he had proven his mettle, his work ethic, his honesty, his integrity and his love for Fox & Goose. And when his partner, Jessa, started working for me, she was just the right balance for Pete’s strengths.

“Pete knows Fox & Goose intimately in terms of operations, down to fixing the toaster when it breaks down. Jessa is excellent at the bookkeeping and managing side, and working with contracts and vendors.”

Berkey used to perform with Sacramento’s Big Idea Theatre. Her day job, before Fox & Goose, involved casting other performers in voiceover and commercial roles as part of Sacramento’s Cast Images agency.

Her client list included future Prince protégée Andy Allo, whom Berkey encouraged to perform at Fox & Goose’s open-mike nights. Her work with the agency helped prepare her for her Fox & Goose role, Berkey said.

“A lot of agenting is logistics – matching projects with the right people,” she said. “It parlays into staffing (a restaurant).”

Like so many of their customers, Monson and Berkey experienced a milestone moment at Fox & Goose. They first met five years ago across the pub’s bar. Monson was bartending, and Berkey had come in to hear music.

Buying the place where they met is a development befitting the third act of a Hollywood romantic comedy, though real-life restaurant ownership, with its long work hours and constant small emergencies, does not fit a neat narrative.

“When you live it, you don’t think of it that way,” Monson said of the couple’s Fox & Goose odyssey. “But when someone says it back to you, you say, ‘Oh yeah, I guess that is full circle.’ 

Berkey and Monson seemed like they would spark no matter how they met. Both exude the warmth and good cheer one associates with Midwesterners. Monson seems slightly more reserved than Berkey, who possesses a dazzling smile and a performer’s sparkly mien.

Sacramento’s Midwestern-esque appeal as what Berkey calls a “community-based” town was a draw for both, she said. Each had family in Northern California when they came west.

Monson left Minneapolis after high school to join his sister and brother-in-law in Sacramento. When he later got a job at the pub, as a host and busser, he followed his brother-in-law’s advice to always save his cash tips.

“Our family is a very, very poor family, and when I got a job here, and I was working like three days a week hosting, I was making like $1,300 a month,” he said. “And I was like, ‘This is amazing.’ The work for me was so natural. Moving all the time, multitasking.”

When he first moved behind the bar, he had day shifts. “It was nothing but sodas all day,” Monson said. But he still dutifully made daily visits to the Washington Mutual on Broadway, to deposit his tips.

He built up enough savings, he said, to “put some skin in the game” when financing the Fox & Goose purchase.

Unlike most new restaurateurs, Monson and Berkey do not need to build a clientele. Dalton said business increased 150 percent during her two decades of ownership, thanks in part to constant improvements that started with bringing in a computer system and accepting credit cards. (Fox & Goose had made it to the mid-’90s without either.)

Although she never measured business in head counts, seating (and standing) capacity at Fox & Goose is around 245. Considering how packed the place gets on weekends, that adds up to a lot of product sold.

Taking over a thriving business was a great opportunity but also daunting in its own way, Monson said. Maintaining Fox & Goose’s high volumes requires a “24/7” commitment from whoever owns the place.

But he’s found ownership “immensely rewarding,” he said. “I can work 13 hours a day and go home and think, ‘That was really awesome.’ … I believe in it, and it’s successful, and I get to work with great people. A lot of people don’t have that.”

Fox & Goose has had to add more coverage in response to increased business overall on the R Street Corridor, where the popular Iron Horse Tavern also opened this summer.

There’s more foot traffic on R Street since it has become a destination, and more people living in the neighborhood since the WAL buildings were finished.

“We are happy to have neighbors,” Berkey said, and to be in tune with the community vibe that first drew them to Sacramento.

Or as Monson, tapping that ol’ Fox & Goose spirit, puts it: “The more the merrier.”