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Iconic cafe ends run on Mill Street: Old Town Café shutters

Pandemic controversy, unrenewed lease contribute to closure

A man checks on the now closed Old Town Cafe along Mill Street earlier this month. The restaurant toted itself as the longest continuous restaurant in Grass Valley.
Photo: Elias Funez

Patrons who enjoyed Old Town Café’s annual free Thanksgiving dinner will need to make new plans. After a storied history, the café on Mill Street in Grass Valley has closed.

Owner Robin Buckman said the closing was due to their inability to obtain a lease from the owners of the building, the Independent order of Grass Valley Odd Fellows Lodge #12, a group that originated to help widows and educate orphans.

The Old Town Café made news in 2020 when the storefront was vandalized with swear words and insults toward then-President Donald Trump. Buckman acknowledged he has been outspoken with his political views, but said his opinions didn’t warrant harassment.



The COVID-19 pandemic also brought some controversy for the restaurant, which Buckman owned for 18 years.

“There was the pandemic, but prior to that there was also the riots, the tearing down of statues, and I am a very vocal person,” said Buckman. “I consider myself to be very patriotic.”



He also found himself to be a bit of a rebel.

“I made a post on social media basically saying that if nobody is going to uphold the law, then Old Town Café will no longer listen to (Gov. Gavin) Newsom or anybody else. That prompted a big ‘He’s not following any rules or regulations,’ which was not the case. We were inspected by the Health Department at that point. Everything was fine, as it always is, and then the pandemic hit.”

Buckman voiced frustration at the unpredictability that came with the pandemic, which made running a business more challenging.

“I should call it the plandemic,” he said. “We did take out. It was supposed to flatten the curve within two weeks. Then that turned into 30 days. Then turned into 68 (days).”

By then, he’d had it with lockdowns.

“After the first time we were allowed to reopen, we never closed again for the simple fact that at that point we did our own research,” he said. “We listened to both sides of everything and nothing made any sense to us. People wanted a choice, so we gave it. We stayed open. The Health Department tried to close us down. We refused.”

CONFLICT OVER LEASE

The lease became a point of contention between Buckman and his landlord. Buckman wanted to buy the property, and the Odd Fellows said the cafe’s departure came as a surprise.

Buckman said he attempted for over a year to make an agreement with Odd Fellows and even had local buyers lined up to take over the business.

“They had financing and everything was in place except for the lease, ”he said. “So I called (Odd Fellows) and said, ‘Help with this. I have a buyer who wants to come in.’”

He said the organization wasn’t interested.

“We sank most of our savings into that restaurant,” he said. “Our retirement was based on being able to sell the restaurant. We requested a meeting with the Odd Fellows board and were never allowed.”

The Odd Fellows issued a statement acknowledging that Buckman was a long-term tenant in the building and then explained: “The lease by and between expired in 2017, there were options to extend the lease up until March 1, 2021, at which time it became a month to month rental agreement without rent increase nor indication that Buckman would be asked to vacate.”

According to the statement, “It came as a surprise on May 31, when (we) received notice Buckman had closed his business and left the keys in Odd Fellows’ mailbox.”

The statement said the organization is morning forward as quickly as possible in respect to downtown Grass Valley, and accepting applications to rent out the vacated property.

Jennifer Nobles is a staff writer for The Union. She can be reached at jnobles@theunion.com

 


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