Saturday, August 23, 2008

Local fixture to close doors


Mel’s Lounge has been a Santa Barbara institution since 1963.
When two blocks of lower State Street were radically renovated to create Paseo Neuvo mall, the tiny little neighborhood bar stayed right where it was.

When the original owner’s son fell ill and could no longer run the bar, a new owner — who happened to be the bookkeeper — came in and kept the place almost exactly when it was. When that owner also faced serious medical complications just five years ago, one of the customers, Mike Knapp, took over, and Mel’s stayed open.
But on Sunday, after 45 years in the same location, Mel’s is closing its doors forever.
According to Knapp, it’s escalating rent that has created the situation. The monthly rent has increased over the five years he’s owned Mel’s from less than $5,000 a month to nearly $10,000, Knapp said yesterday.
“I took over the old lease with options on it, but it was tied in to what the prices per square footage are around the area,” he explained. “But a lot of these places are ice cream joints and food places that can sell their food to be eaten off premises. Our occupancy is limited to 49. And you can’t take a drink with you and leave.”
While some establishments might be able to raise prices to handle the increased expenses, Knapp said that wasn’t an option.
“I can’t keep raising my drink prices, because people won’t come. We’re not an upscale place. And there’s no room to expand.”
So now Mel’s will join other now-demised longtime Santa Barbara institutions such as Jimmy’s, the Italian and Greek Deli, Chad’s on Chapala and the music/video store Morninglory, and exist only as a memory.
“It’s pretty said because Mel’s has been around forever,” said Knapp, who was born and raised here. “It’s a real Santa Barbara institution.”
Knapp said his customers are feeling the same frustration over the loss of Mel’s as other places that have closed recently.
“Up and down the block places are getting forced out,” he said. “And corporate things, big chains from Los Angeles or wherever, are what’s coming in. Old Santa Barbara is leaving.
The bar had a small gathering featuring a potluck for its loyal customers on Wednesday.
“We had some food and all got drunk,” said Fran Reed, Mel’s longtime bartender.
Reed has served drinks at the bar for 19 years, covering four different owners.
“I guess I went with the license every time it was sold,” she said.
Reed said she doesn’t know where she will work after Sunday.
“I’m pretty sad about this whole thing — we all are. It’s a nice little hideout, just a friendly little bar. The customers don’t know where they are gong to go now. One of our regulars told me, ‘I’ll guess I’ll just have to go home.’”
The bar has printed up tee shirts to give to regular customers that have both of Mel’s logos along with the dates 1963-2008 and the phrase “so long.”
Knapp said he may try to relocate Mel’s to another area, although nothing is in the works. And he’s not sure he’d keep the same name.
“This place is Mel’s. I don’t know if it would be right for somewhere else.”
In the meantime, the bar is open its usual hours of 8 a.m. to 2 a.m., today and tomorrow. On Sunday, in fact, the prices will drop as the day progresses.
“We can’t take any of the alcohol with us when we close,” Knapp said.”
So the price will go down all day on Sunday. And at night it probably will be a dollar a drink. It’s a little give back to show our appreciation for all those years.”

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