The Charlestown Cafe – When Success is not Enough

Within walking distance from my house sits a restaurant that, on first glance, seems a bit nondescript. Built out of the remnants of an old Country Kitchen restaurant, it gives the appearance of an homogenized diner that franchised restaurants such as Denny’s and IHOP are known for. It’s not until you step into the Charlestown Cafe that it starts to feel a little different.

First off, there’s the awards on the walls. Various official looking documents lauding their Clam Chowder are prevalent. The ever-friendly staff is quick to tell you about their Mayor’s Small Business Award for Excellence. They have been featured on the Food Network and the CBS early show. It’s one of those places where the staff seems to know the regulars by name, and there always seems to be a wait for a table.

And yet they may have to close.

As mentioned before, it’s not because of a lack of business. The Charlestown is one of those places that if you don’t get there before 10 o’clock on a weekend morning, you might as well look for other breakfast alternatives, because you will have to wait otherwise. It is very nearly the definition of “local institution”.

No. They may have to close because the property is far more valuable than it was when they opened almost seventeen years ago, and the property holders can tear down the building that currently houses the restaurant, and rebuild with an eye on charging higher rents. Plans are in place to replace The restaurant and adjoining parking lot with a 13,600-square-foot commercial building, according to Seattle planning department records. Back last summer, when the owners of the Cafe asked the landlord “Why not include us in your new building?” the landlord stated that they already had tenants lined up.

Since that time it was learned that the new tenants were PetCo, a nationally franchised pet store that has to move from it’s current location a few blocks away.

I direct this question at the property owners – Is this progress? I don’t mean tearing down the restaurant in order to put in place a six story commercial/residential “tower” of sorts. Most folks in the area will concede that a) Seattle is growing and b) we need places to put the influx of new families. A fair amount of us wish that the new building would be stylish and accommodating, but are cynical enough (and have seen enough examples) to realize that this isn’t likely to happen.

No. My question is directed at your choice to freeze out a local institution and replace it with a company who’s only interest in your location is how much it affects their profit margins. Is it progress to remove a successful, locally owned restaurant from a neighborhood and replace it with a company whose headquarters is 1250 miles away? How much profit from PetCo is going to be re-invested here in West Seattle?

Is it progress to replace a successful business who is completely invested in the local community with one who is only marginally invested (pun intended)?

I’m sure this isn’t the first time in this nation’s history that this sort of battle has been played out. Nor will it be the last. But at some point, we, the consumers and patrons of the businesses in these disputes need to take notice of the fact that sometimes our best interest is to look at success in ways that go beyond (or even exclude) profit margins. Sometimes a value of a business is best determined not only by what they take in, but in what they give back.

From where I sit, the owners of the Charlestown Cafe are one of the most valuable businesses here in West Seattle.

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Hat tip to the West Seattle Blog who’s been on top of this story.

If you live in West Seattle and would like to see where this battle is going and perhaps help out, the first place you want to stop is at the Our Town West Seattle Yahoo! Group.