This Tuesday will mark 1 year since West Seattle’s Charlestown Cafe reopened after repairs from a fire that came on the heels of a long fight over its site’s future. Seemed like the time to check in to see how things are going – and we found out some surprises:
Story and photos by Kathy Mulady
Reporting for West Seattle Blog
The one-year anniversary of the re-opening of Webster’s Charlestown Street Café is a bittersweet celebration for Ron Hanlon, owner of the West Seattle fixture.
A fire in the stove hood in February 2008 closed the Charlestown Café for months while Hanlon, the café property owner and the insurance company haggled over details. The restaurant with the something-for-everyone menu finally reopened June 30 last year. Just in time for what some have nicknamed the Great Recession.
Hanlon’s longtime business partner Larry Mellum moved on earlier this year, expanding Pike Place Chowder to Pacific Place downtown. But Hanlon is staying put at Charlestown, and in West Seattle, where he has owned restaurants for 30 years.
“I’m going to ride this to the end,” he said this week.
Regular customers, like Al Schmitz – a member of one of West Seattle’s founding families – still come in, grabbing their favorite tables or seats at the counter:
“I’ve been coming here for at least 20 years, at least a couple of times a week,” said Schmitz, who teaches senior fitness in Burien. “It’s the good food and the pleasant waitresses.”
Servers Tama Warrior and Hesper Guerra pour endless cups of coffee:
Guerra started working at the café right out of high school, some 20 years ago.
Stories like that represent the sweet part.
The last three years have been a rollercoaster ride for Hanlon. In 2006, the café lost its lease as the landowner, Strickland Corporation, prepared to sell the property to Petco. The news riled loyal customers who took the threatened loss personally. They started a petition drive, packed community meetings and lobbied the city.
Petco’s proposal never made it all the way through Design Review; eventually it gave up and backed off from the purchase plan.
For the restaurant, it was a brief reprieve.
(2/4/08 photo courtesy Scott Kratz; there’s also video at JetCityOrange)
The fire damage (blamed on the deep-fat fryer) wasn’t horrific, but the damaged relationship between Hanlon and Strickland came into full bloom, according to the cafe owner.
Hanlon said it was obvious as soon as he called the insurance company.
“You could feel the brakes go on,” said Hanlon.
Employees were paid during the four months the cafe was closed. When it reopened last year, everyone came back to work.
The café was chugging back when the recession hit.
Hanlon remembers the sinking feeling he had September 15, the day Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy. A few days later, Washington Mutual did the same. Suddenly, the bustling café slowed. Regular customers who used to come in three or four times a week, now stop by once or twice. Hanlon has laid off employees.
His hunch is that the economy has hit bottom, but he predicts it will stay flat down there for quite a while yet. It could be a blessing for the café, buying them time before another property buyer comes along.
Since the property fight with the landlord, the Charlestown Café has been running on a month-to-month lease. Hanson says the relationship can’t be salvaged.
“It’s a miserable marriage and we aren’t going to counseling,” is how he describes it. “I’m done.”
But the Charlestown Café does go on. At lunchtime, the place is lively. Tables are filled with business people, families and friends, just like always.
“We are making our expenses, our rent and our payroll,” said Hanlon.
So the anniversary brings mixed feelings.
“It’s great for the staff, it’s great for the community,” he said. “For me, it’s bittersweet.”
WSB coverage of the Charlestown Cafe – the development proposal, the fire, and beyond – is archived here, newest to oldest.