Cardboard cutouts of Marilyn Monroe and The Three Stooges were piled against the glass at the front of Cheeburger Cheeburger on Friday. One man stood on a ladder, tearing metal moulding off the walls.
Teal padded chairs were piled everywhere and in a corner near the entrance, a cutout of Humphrey Bogart watched the dismantling of the restaurant.
Cheeburger Cheeburger closed its doors Monday, and owner Steve Touchstone has spent the week auctioning off equipment, donating food to the food bank and arranging for fans to come pick up the remaining boxes of T-shirts.
On Friday, Touchstone wore a blue Cheeburger Cheeburger shirt as he worked to clean up the space. He has until Sunday to tie up any loose ends in the restaurant. Next week, the company he co-owns with his in-laws will file for bankruptcy.
Cheeburger Cheeburger joins a growing list of New Town businesses that have closed up shop in the past six months. Since late 2009, Old Navy, J. Jill, Z Pizza and Great Harvest Bread Company have closed their doors. Touchstone said all the business owners and managers in New Town talk and everyone is nervous. Cheeburger Cheeburger’s business had been declining for nine months.
“I was looking forward to a summer that never materialized,” he said. “The tourists never came, the families stopped spending money.”
When Cheeburger Cheeburger opened in New Town in 2005, it was one of more than 20 restaurants in the mixed-use development. But Touchstone said the restaurant market in Williamsburg is oversaturated and many developments, such as High Street and Settlers Market, are only signing restaurants without adding any retail to help generate foot traffic. “It’s not a good forecast for Williamsburg,” he said.
Touchstone believes it could be easier to do business in New Town if rents could be renegotiated to reflect the poor economy. He said the leasing agency that handles New Town, Shor Real Estate, refused to lower rents. Touchstone said at different points during his ownership, the leasing company would tell him all the other restaurants were doing well and any problems he experienced were unique to his business. When Z Pizza closed in November, it was clear that wasn’t the case.
Nathan Shor, president of Shor Real Estate, had no comment.
“We looked at trying to move the store. We tried to find a buyer or find a partner. We had 20 parties who were interested,” Touchstone said. “But the people with the cash and the means to do it don’t trust the economic stability of this area.”
Touchstone and his father-in-law/partner Coy Saul decided December’s performance would determine the future of the restaurant. A snowy weekend and fewer retail options kept shoppers out of New Town over the holidays and in mid-January, the hot water heater died. The business had to close for four days and the repairs cost around $500. That was the “knockout punch,” Touchstone said.
Cheeburger’s problems didn’t begin when the economy started to decline, however. The franchise decided to open a location in Williamsburg in 2005 and after a rocky start, approached Touchstone to take over. Touchstone has worked with the company for six years, starting first in its three Richmond locations. He had heard rumors about the Williamsburg restaurant and thought he could tackle the challenge of turning the business around.
“Imagine the worst restaurant experiences,” he said of the rumors. “I heard stories in Richmond, but I thought they were made up.” Among the rumors he heard: uncooked food was served and staff smoked marijuana in the back of the restaurant.
With Saul, Touchstone invested in the restaurant and became the owner/operator in 2007. The first 18 months were good, he said. But the summer of 2008 didn’t bring as many tourists and families in and 2009 was “in the tanker,” he said.
“We can’t keep pouring money into this. If we had, we would have lost homes,” he said. Any money he received from auctioned equipment goes back to his vendors and his father-in-law. They aren’t considering the restaurant a failure because if they had stayed, it could have been much worse, Touchstone said.
Touchstone’s biggest fear was letting down his employees. He had 42 at the restaurant’s peak; as of Monday, he had 22. The restaurant didn’t have any layoffs prior to its closing, but vacant positions were frozen. His five full-time employees have mostly landed on their feet, however. Some have been hired at other area restaurants, such as Buffalo Wild Wings, the Trellis and the Baker’s Crust.
“Everyone was paid in full. That’s one thing I’m proud of. I made a commitment to these kids when they came to work for me,” Touchstone said. “What kept me up at night was making sure they were OK.”
As for his own future, Touchstone isn’t worried. He hopes to spend more time with his family before exploring other opportunities. If he does open a restaurant again, it will be in a less saturated market. “I’ll look to fill a niche that’s not occupied,” he said. “But I’m going to work for someone else for a little while.”