Ponderosa owner didn't want business to close: 'We were like family,' restaurant's general manager says of staff

Shawano Leader/August 29, 2008

The intersection of Green Bay Street and Eberlein Park Lane-one of the busiest in Shawano-is considerably quieter today as the former Ponderosa Restaurant sits vacant following its sudden and unexpected closing.

Ponderosa, which opened in 1989 and enjoyed a loyal following among local patrons and out of town visitors alike, closed its doors to patrons Sunday night.

According to an attorney for the restaurant's owner, Shaw-Bay Inc., the property's owner had demanded the business vacate the building.

"After a series of negotiations, Shaw-Bay responded to the demand of the landlord to vacate," said Randall Crocker of Milwaukee. "There were ongoing negotiations that were going on for at least 60 days to reach an agreement for the ongoing business, but that was not reached."

The property owner-Samanta Roy Institute of Science and Technology-had made the demand as early as June 1, Crocker said.

Shaw-Bay was "disappointed" that an agreement couldn't be reached, Crocker said. He declined to discuss the specifics of the talks, but acknowledged that Shaw-Bay had a current lease for the property.

"This is not the result that Shaw-Bay sought," Crocker said. "The preference (was for it) to go on and have the jobs for the people."

Melea Norton, the general manager at Ponderosa for 18 years, said it seemed clear SIST wanted to keep the restaurant running after Shaw-Bay departed. Norton met with SIST agent Naomi Isaacson the Friday before the restaurant closed.

"They wanted me and the staff to stay on and keep the restaurant open," she said.

Norton said when she inquired about whether they had obtained a restaurant license and reached a franchise agreement with Ponderosa, she was told the organization's attorneys were working on those issues.

Norton also said she and Isaacson had discussed making an orderly transition for Shaw-Bay to leave the building.

But that didn't happen. About 11 p.m. Sunday, Shawano Police were called to Ponderosa after receiving a report that cars belonging to employees were being photographed and videotaped. The incident resulted in police arresting Isaacson, who police said refused to give her name to an officer writing her a citation for loitering.

Police responded to several more calls to Ponderosa, where Isaacson and other SIST representatives chose to personally monitor and observe the process of the restaurant's closure on site. There was another arrest made late in the afternoon.

Isaacson claimed that SIST had a security interest in the equipment being removed, but that was not the case, Crocker said.

"We found no indication of a security interest," said Crocker, who also disputed Isaacson's statement that no rent had been paid by Ponderosa for two years.

"Some rent had been paid-there was a dispute as to the amount, and rent had been paid as recently as on or about July 1," Crocker said. He declined to discuss the rent issue further.

Norton said she it was "unfortunate" the closure turned into an emotionally-charged incident.

"My staff was simply following instructions with regard to removal of leased equipment which belongs to the various vendors who supplied beverage dispensing equipment, video games and other equipment," she said. "All of the equipment and fixtures which were company owned remained in the facility."

Norton said the staff of the restaurant maintained its composure as they worked to vacate the facility under trying circumstances.

"I am very proud and grateful to my staff. Even though they all were aware the business was closing, all but one of my employees came to work on Monday to prepare the facility to be shut down," Norton said. "We were like family. Despite the sadness of the day, everyone worked hard to complete the task of working with various vendors to remove leased equipment and then clean all remaining equipment and thoroughly clean the facility. Our staff is a real class act."

Norton said she learned about the closure while she was out of state on vacation, then rushed back to handle details and make arrangements. She arrived back home Aug. 22, and officially notified her staff.

"This was a very, very difficult task for our team," Norton said. "It was and still is something that is very emotional for me and all of the staff. We were a very close knit group of people who adored our regular customers. We still are trying to come to grips with the fact we don't have jobs and we will not be serving our regular, loyal customers any more." Crocker said the restaurant had 32 employees, which is not enough to require the company to provide notice to employees and local governmental officials.

Norton, who worked at the restaurant since it opened in July 1989, said Monday was a particularly difficult day, because of the disturbances outside and the work going on inside.

"It was my hardest day of work, ever," Norton said, adding that the job was her life.

"My family, if they wanted to see me, they came in and ate," she said.

On the last day of business Sunday, a regular customer gave Norton a big hug in the dining room and asked her: "What am I going to be able to do without being able to stop and see you?"

"It's really sad," Norton said.

Shaw-Bay is owned by William Janney of Indianapolis, the most senior franchisee of the Ponderosa chain, having operated its restaurants since the mid-1960s.

But no longer, as the lights at the restaurant are dimmed.

"It's a business dispute that ended up this way," Crocker said.

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