“It’s sad to believe that it’s over,” said longtime employee Missy Tellinghuisen, who has spent nearly two decades serving tables at the establishment. “It would have been 18 years this May.”
Amy Smith, who has been a server at Barbara Jean’s for the past two years said the owner conducted a meeting with some staff members Monday morning.
“They sat us down and said they were closing, and that they were closing that day, right now,” Smith said.
Another employee, Danielle Rohman, said when she arrived for work on Monday afternoon, she had no idea about the meeting earlier that day.
“I showed up for my shift and the doors were locked,” Rohman said. “It made me feel like my 13 years meant nothing.”
With two children and being seven months pregnant, Rohman said she will have to rely on unemployment until she can find another job.
“Who’s going to hire a preggo?” she said.
Some employees said warning signs of Barbara Jean’s financial problems became apparent only after the final decision to close was announced. Smith said business had been very slow during the past several weeks, yet deliveries weren’t being made and inventory wasn’t being replenished. Typically, restaurants have trouble running out of items when they are unusually busy — not when customers are barely trickling through the doors.
Another indication that the restaurant was struggling was when a sign was posted a few months ago stating gift certificates were sold out.
Smith, who moved from North Carolina with her family to Milaca in 2010, said she understood why the decision to close seemed so abrupt. She said if it were her business, she would fear retaliation from employees if the notification was given in advance.
“I really appreciate him waiting until after the holidays,” Smith said.
Smith said she, her husband, and their young child were planning on moving back to North Carolina this summer to be closer to her family.
“So this makes the move a little easier for me, but I was still planning on working for another month and a half,” she said.
Owner Brad Ireland said the company had been contemplating the decision to close for several years now. When he and business partner Eric Sandrock first signed the lease for the building, it was for 10 years. The owners stayed an extra four years, delaying the inevitable.
“I can’t tell you how hard a decision it was to make,” Ireland said. “We’ve gotten to know the people there and the customers. We stayed as long as we could economically stay there.”
The financial problems at Barbara Jean’s were two-fold, according to Ireland. Not only are fewer people eating out these days, but the building is a remnant of an out-dated model of restaurants — one that is far larger than modern diners are usually built today. Most eateries do not seat more than 100, while this building can accommodate several hundred customers at once.
“We’re leaving all the equipment and furnishings in tact,” he said. “We’re trying to make it as turn-key as possible.”
If people are still in possession of gift certificates for Barbara Jean’s, Ireland said he and Sandrock are happy to accept them at their American Burger Bar restaurants in St. Joseph, downtown Minneapolis and at 7th and Wabasha in St. Paul.
“I’ve appreciated all the customers we’ve had and all the friendships we made,” Ireland said. “That community has become really dear to us.”
For the full story, see the Thursday, Jan. 17 print edition of the Times.