Six months after he closed his Dade City restaurant, Village Inn owner Bill Christie has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in federal court in Tampa.
"We're trying to save our business and save the jobs on behalf of the employees," Christie said.
The filing comes as a bit of a surprise because the Zephyrhills location at the corner of Gall Boulevard and 5th Avenue has been one of the company's strongest performers. It was named Franchise of the Year in 1997.
"As far as I knew, they were rolling right along," said Vonnie Mikkelsen, executive director of the Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce. "They're in a prime location."
But Christie's other restaurants didn't fare as well. He closed the Spring Hill location in 2007 and the Dade City location last May. A Mexican restaurant had moved into the Spring Hill building, but it went out of business in January, Christie said.
"We still had the debt from those two restaurants," he said. "The Zephyrhills store was always our strongest store, but it's not enough to pay the mortgage on three buildings."
Christie said he has no plans to close the business, and he won approval from the court this week to make payroll today. The restaurant has 35 employees.
"We're going to remain the owners of the business, and I'm confident once we come out of this we'll be stronger than ever, and we'll be able to remodel the Zephyrhills store to bring it up to date," he said.
That's good news for customers Janet and Larry Clingerman, who spend their winters in Zephyrhills. They said they regularly eat at Village Inn for its "good food, good services, low prices — and pie on Wednesdays." They're fond of the lemon supreme.
"We've been coming for many, many years," Larry Clingerman said. "It's always good. We've never had a bad meal."
Zephyrhills resident Diana Trznadel said she's been a loyal customer since the restaurant opened almost 20 years ago. "I know the one in Dade City closed, but I never thought this one would," she said. "My brother eats here every day."
The restaurant and its parking lot take up a full city block, and it's at a key location for the county's downtown plan. "It's a large piece of valuable property in the core of our community redevelopment area," said Todd Vande Berg, the city's director of development.
City Manager Jim Drumm said the intersection of Gall and 5th Avenue will be redesigned when the Florida Department of Transportation widens U.S. 301, but those plans won't affect the restaurant. "I've talked to them about parking and concepts for an outdoor café," Drumm said. "We really liked the idea, but there was a lot of construction involved. They would have had to build a new door. It would have been very pricey."
The family-owned company, Vichris Inc., owes creditors more than $635,000, according to the bankruptcy filings. American Blue Ribbon Holdings, the parent company that bought Village Inn in 2009, is the largest creditor with $296,000 for unpaid franchise fees.
Christie said the amount is more than double what he owes. "We bought the Dade City franchise and we had a 20-year agreement. But we were only open 15 years, so we owe them five years of royalties," he said.