Times are tough for small businesses.
I’ve been reluctant to write about Walker’s Café for many reasons. The main one is it’s not my fight. As someone who has worked in the real estate industry for 36 years, I can tell you it’s important that commercial properties be run according to their “highest and best use.” If you think it is simply financial, you’re wrong — contributing to the quality of life in a community is equally important. However, a commercial property must remain financially viable for it to be maintained and retained.
In 2009, my 93-year-old grandfather-in-law visited and asked me to take him to Walker’s for lunch. Grandpa Don had lots of happy memories to share about grabbing a bite with his wife, Dafne, and enjoying the coast. He wasn’t eating the best sandwiches in the world; for him, he was eating nostalgia. Nothing tastes better than memories.
I have to be honest — I was a bit concerned about whether the kitchen was sanitary and all of the deferred maintenance. I’ve traveled the world and eaten in some scary places, including months traveling the Silk Road in China. This wasn’t that, but my work and experience with the City of LA made me keenly aware that there would need to be improvements if the property were ever to change hands.
For me, the highest and best use of Walker’s is a café that serves the community as a family-friendly, clean, reasonably priced, well-maintained spot for locals and visitors alike. To serve beer and wine, some work needs to be done, possible kitchen expansion, and ADA-compliant bathrooms. While I love motorcycles, I’m not a fan of revving engines during Shakespeare by the Sea or disturbing the neighbors. The café should be inviting and welcoming to all visitors looking to enjoy the coast and the park without making it hard for others to do the same.
Some people don’t understand Walker’s Café is a commercial business. That means it must be profitable to survive. When I say that, some folks immediately equate profit to greed. To me, profitable means being able to hire locally at a livable wage and with a short commute. Profitable means being able to provide quality products in a safe, clean, and well-maintained business at a price working-class families can afford. And profitable means being able to support a small family-run business without bankrupting the owners. If it’s not profitable, it’s a hobby and not a business and, therefore, not sustainable for the long haul.
The historical designation has tripled the cost to renovate, tripled the time to do so, and tripled the bureaucratic red tape. The architects, consultants, attorneys, and renovations could easily exceed $1 million. That’s a lot for an 800-square-foot café. It is good to see more people beginning to understand that the historical designation is a hindrance, not a help, and why it may keep Walker’s from ever reopening. However, it’s time to get past that and work toward solutions. I estimate Walker’s would need to sell 370,000 burgers at $9, with a 30 percent margin to cover these costs. A good day for McDonald’s is 800 without a drive-thru.
For Walker’s to return, it will need a huge cash investment to make the repairs in compliance with the city, county, and coastal and historical commissions. I would support a nonprofit raising funds to bring Walker’s back to its historic glory. Short of that, the owners plan to build two units behind Walker’s, similar to the existing rentals on that block. This solution could cover the costs and make the property appealing to an owner/operator in the future. Hopefully, the community will come out in support of getting Walker’s reopened in a way that can be sustained, maintained, and enjoyed by many generations to come. spt