Staying Or Going?

by Cara Gardner

In this town, when people learn that a local restaurant is closing -- even a trendy, seemingly popular one -- it doesn't come as a big surprise. Spokane struggles to keep its downtown vibrant, often needing to encourage people to dine out. But when reports came out in both the Spokesman-Review and The Inlander that Chevy's Fresh Mex restaurant in River Park Square was closing its doors and leaving the area, it was a surprise -- to Chevy's managers, that is.

"I just can't believe it," says John Cullen, general manager of Chevy's. Cullen and his wife, Vicky, have taken turns managing the restaurant since it opened in 1999 with a 20-year lease at RPS. "You know, in this town, these things get started and it is mind-boggling, really," Cullen says. "As of now, we're not leaving. It's business as usual."

Cullen says even though his restaurant hasn't been doing stellar business, it hasn't been doing worse than any other downtown restaurants.

"We're like anyone else downtown. It's not great times, but we're running our business as usual."

Yet as Cullen rushes to dispel myths floating around about his restaurant closing its doors, others claim Chevy's is leaving, and, in fact, should already be gone.

The staff at Rock City Grill, one of downtown's more popular local eateries, has been letting customers know that the Grill is relocating -- to the space Chevy's currently occupies.

"We have a signed lease for the Chevy's space with RPS Leasing," says Cindy Martinson, a manager at Rock City. "We believed we would take possession [of the place] on the 2nd of September to start our remodeling."

Martinson says that Rock City Grill's plans to move into Chevy's space began early this year.

"We've been looking for a new place, and [we thought] maybe we'd go to Cucina Cucina -- and then [RPS Leasing] heard we were looking, and they came to us," Martinson says.

Cullen, the Chevy's manager, says he hasn't talked to RPS Leasing about the possibility that RPS recruited Rock City Grill in the middle of Chevy's lease period. He still calls the whole thing "speculation."

The owner of Chevy's Spokane franchise, Joseph Schmidt, is based in Minnesota. He did not return phone calls for comment on this story. Schmidt has been quoted in the Spokesman saying that he's negotiated with RPS Leasing regarding an early end to Chevy's lease in Spokane, but it's clear that nothing is determined yet. Schmidt doesn't say when those negations started, or whether RPS Leasing had already approached Rock City Grill before talks with Chevy's started.

Bob Smith, the general manager for RPS Leasing, doesn't have a comment either, but the company's public relations manager, Jennifer West, does.

"It's all in discussion at [this] time," West says. "I don't know when specific parties became involved, nor do I know when the discussion started. What I know is that there are discussions regarding Chevy's role in that space and the potential role of a new tenant."

When mentioning that Rock City Grill claims to have been promised access as early as the beginning of September, West adds: "That lease is not finalized. There are contingencies to that lease. The leasing team is active in getting out and approaching all kinds of tenants and anything and everything can happen until a lease is signed and finalized by all parties. It's not a done deal."

Martinson, with Rock City Grill, says the signed lease with RPS Leasing has a confidentiality agreement.

"I don't know if that's still in effect," Martinson says. "There were definitely reasons RPS Leasing approached us [about moving into Chevy's space], but I can't tell."

Jim Rhoades, owner of Rock City Grill, says he can't comment on the issue, either.

West is careful not to place blame, but notes that Chevy's is a big corporation and explains that communication breaks down easily when owners and managers aren't in the same state.

"I'm not clear on how they're set up," West says, "it's something with a corporate entity, and who signs the leases and negotiates the leases, I don't know. It's a matter of making a business decision and formalizing agreements."

Cullen, over at Chevy's, is still confused.

"My owners have basically said there's no deal [with RPS Leasing], but that's as much as I know."

Publication date: 09/25/03