Downtowner restaurant turning off the oven

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 26, 2011

By Emily Ford
SALISBURY ó The Downtowner restaurant will close for good this weekend after losing its Meals on Wheels contract.
ěIt was a huge part of our income,î owner John Cole said. ěWithout that, we just canít keep the doors open.î
Known for home cooking and free desserts, the restaurant will serve its final buffet from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday. Many diners followed the Downtowner last year when the business moved from the Elks Lodge on Main Street, where it opened in 2000, to the Harold B. Jarrett American Legionís upstairs ballroom at 1024 Lincolnton Road.
ěWeíve got some wonderful customers,î Cole said. ěLoyal, loyal, loyal.î
The Downtowner prepared food for Meals on Wheels for more than 10 years, as well as lunches for Salisbury Academy and North Hills Christian School.
ěMy staff and I have loved the experience over the last few years with Salisbury Academy, especially the wonderful children that we have known,î Cole wrote in a recent letter to Salisbury Academy parents and faculty. ěYou should be very proud of them.î
Rita Sims, executive director for Meals on Wheels of Rowan, said pulling the Downtownerís contract was a board decision that had been discussed for several months before it was finalized.
ěThe top priority for Meals on Wheels is always the clients. Our goal has always been to deliver a top-quality product,î Sims said in a statement. ěIn this economy, we needed to find someone who would work with us on cost containment while delivering a well-proportioned, top-quality meal.î
Clients and volunteers had expressed concerns about the Downtownerís quality and portions, she said. Meals on Wheels awarded the Downtownerís contract to CJís Restaurant in Cleveland, which has been providing meals for the west Rowan County area six years.
CJís and Jimmieís Restaurant in China Grove are now the only meal providers for the organization. They have month-to-month contracts.
ěThis move to our current Cleveland provider is the first step toward consolidating meal services and working towards our own kitchen,î Sims said.
An exploratory committee hopes to complete a feasibility study in conjunction with Catawba College to determine whether Meals on Wheels should operate its own kitchen in a central location, rather than using contractors, she said. Cabarrus County Meals on Wheels recently cut costs by opening a kitchen.
The study would look at renting versus buying property and how much money the organization would need to raise, Sims said.
Cole said he was never given an opportunity to address any complaints Meals on Wheels may have had, and he characterized the decision to pull his contract as ěpolitical.î
Betty Kuvinka, admissions and marketing director for Salisbury Academy, said students will eat their final lunch from the Downtowner on Nov. 4, giving the school enough time to find another source.
A 35-year veteran of the restaurant industry, Cole said he opened 10 Ryanís restaurants in four states, including the one in Salisbury. The economy has taken a toll on the Downtowner, which stopped serving lunch in July for the summer and never resumed, he said.
ěThe economy is hurting everyone in small, mom-and-pop type restaurants,î Cole said.
The Downtowner has served only Sunday buffet for several months, but it attracts more than 100 people. Cole said he expects an even larger crowd this weekend for the final meal, featuring seven entrees, 12 vegetables and salad and dessert bars.
Then, Cole said he plans to take a few weeks off to spend with his family before looking for another job.
ěItís been tough. One of the hardest things Iíve ever done is to close,î Cole said. ěItís just time to go.î
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.