The end seems nigh for the venerable Goldfish Tavern. Longtime patrons gathered over the weekend for a potluck dinner and to bid adieu to one of the area’s oldest and most beloved watering holes.
Owner Sandie Stevens said she plans to shutter her business after the last patron departs early Thursday morning, but not before she and her staff sell or raffle off kegs, signs and “everything that’s not nailed down.”
“It's been an extended family. It's kind of like a home away from home - a Cheers kind of deal,” said bar manager Laura Collins, also a 14-year patron who met her husband there.
“We don't really know what's going to happen to it after this,” Collins said. “We just know as of Wednesday, the 31st, the bar will be closed as the Goldfish.”
But could the closure be only temporary? Behind the scenes, Stevens and property manager John Eberhardt have haggled over past-due rent and disagreed on the terms under which the tavern could stay open with the same iconic name.
Eberhardt said tentative plans have also begun taking shape for opening a new tavern at 5310 North Pearl St., in Ruston, where the ‘Fish has stood these last eight decades.
Stevens was awarded the Goldfish in a divorce settlement, but a lack of bar experience and her declining health often made the establishment difficult to run.
“So it's kind of left to the bartenders and the community to keep it going,” Collins said, “and finances have always been an issue. So through a lot of volunteer work from our local customers we've had rewiring and plumbing and all kinds of things just voluntarily done.”
Stevens blamed the economy and the closure of the Ruston Way Tunnel earlier this year for a downturn in business. She blamed the slump and mounting personal debt for making it impossible for her to keep up with lease payments for the first time in 19 years.
“I'm a basket case. I don't know what to do,” she said. “My health isn't very well. I've got so much work to do, and I'm just non-functional because I'm so upset.”
Eberhardt said Stevens owed three months back rent and related fees - about $3,800 - when she was served with a notice to pay or vacate last week. Stevens said she was able to borrow $2,000 to pay part of the debt, but was unable to come up with the remainder by Tuesday’s deadline.
Stevens said she found a buyer for her business, but accused Gore of raising the rent unreasonably. “There’s not going to be a settlement,” she said. “I own the name, and I own everything that's not nailed down, which I guess isn't a lot.”
Eberhardt said he and his mother were asking potential renters to pay $1,600 per month. “Basically, the rent hasn't been raised, except for cost of living, for about 25 years,” he said, also mentioning a clause in the lease that required tenants to do routine maintenance.
But Eberhardt said Stevens has not been evicted and that the best possible outcome would be for her to finish out the lease, which expires in 2014.
“Our goal is to not have that building empty,” he said. “My mom got remarried about 12 years ago, and my stepdad passed away just last year. So she lost about $4,500 in income. Basically, she needs that income to support herself.”
Eberhardt said his family would make improvements on the property and reopen under a different name in a worst case scenario. “We're unprepared to start a business there,” he added. “We've got no business plan, nothing except an empty building that we're afraid to keep empty.”