WALLA WALLA - Mr. Ed's Restaurant, the Isaacs Avenue eatery that became a staple on Walla Walla's food scene long before the community's culinary explosion, will close its doors this weekend.
Owners Dan Givens and Craig Potter broke the news to the restaurant's roughly 14 employees Wednesday night before announcing the closure on Facebook.
The news was a shock this morning to patrons learning about the development on social networks. The almost 40-year-old business rebounded from a devastating fire in late 2009 by opening in 2010 to a welcome-back crowd of about 300 people and had its best year on the books in 2011 under its current ownership.
But Givens said this morning recovery from the fire was more difficult than it may have appeared. The operation was under-insured for the damage it sustained, and owners didn't know that until the rebuild at 2555 Isaacs Ave. was complete. The slightly diminishing crowds in the last few months combined with unpredictable food costs -- a case of eggs has fluctuated between $13 and $26 over the last three weeks -- other rising operational expenses from labor to power, and increasing competition led to the decision.
"That was a real tough speech last night," Givens said. "I was hoping beyond hope I wouldn't have to make it. Everybody here knew that things haven't been great for several months. ... Even though there was probably a tickling in their minds that this could happen, until the words are spoken you don't believe it. Quite frankly, I couldn't believe I was saying it."
The business will serve breakfast and lunch Sunday. After that, the doors will close for good at 3 p.m.
Givens said he and Potter had done as much as they could to postpone a closure, including layoffs of about six employees. As recently as last Sunday, they'd also advertised a change in evening hours on select days as a way to cut expenses. "Of the three meals of the day, dinner was the least profitable," he said. "We thought we would phase that out and save the labor cost, which we really hated to do."
But even that didn't seem to pencil out when Givens and Potter crunched some numbers and made some forecasts earlier this week. With the recent openings of The Maple Counter Caf?©, Bacon & Eggs, A Wing & A Prayer Barbecue + Catering and The Brik, the potential loss of business could be huge.
"Historically we've always rebounded," Givens said. "We feel an effect for 60 to 90 days, then it comes back. But if it's going to take that long times four, do we really want to weather that and risk not being able to make payroll?"
The decision to close was made Tuesday. By Wednesday morning, they were on the phone, notifying distributors and other partners.
Givens said ideally someone would come forward and buy the operation, which he and Potter have been attempting to sell.
He believes someone better capitalized could find success where they have come up short for a number of reasons. First, a new owner would get a good deal on relatively new equipment and the recently revamped space without the financial burden the current owners have suffered. A new owner could also benefit from simply being new, which usually translates to crowds of locals lining up for the latest and greatest.
"There's opportunity here," Givens said.
"If we'd had a crystal ball we probably would have tried to market this thing three or four months ago."
For regular patrons, the closure is the end of an era. The business that evolved from an A&W carhop, has built a clientele with its homestyle food and an equally homey atmosphere. The operation has long adorned its walls with pictures of local hot rods and sports teams. It is, in and of itself, a microcosm of the Valley and its small-town dynamics.
"Mr. Ed" himself, Ed Volkman, who had bought the local A&W franchise, built the Isaacs Avenue building with his wife in 1973 and eventually converted it to a local restaurant, has continued until this week to eat there every Sunday. He and his late wife, Norma, sold the business in 1995 to Robert and Kathy Remus. Robert Remus and Givens played junior high football together.
The storied connections of the people who work and dine there is the greatest loss of all, Givens said.
When the late 2009 fire hit, Givens and Potter were so pre-occupied with keeping their employees working -- especially through the holidays -- that they paid for space at the Elks Lodge to help sustain the restaurant and its workers. Those kinds of efforts, above all else, have defined the operation.
"The customers are like family as well," Givens said. "If they're sick, we take them food. It's a unique place with unique customers."
Where they'll go, he has no idea. When he'll see them again is even more upsetting, Givens said.
"This building is an icon," he lamented. "It just makes me sad to think that I had to be one of (the people) at the helm when this place isn't here any more. That's really depressing."
Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8321.