Business

Natural Cafe closes after 13 years in downtown SLO

The Natural Cafe restaurant on Higuera closed this week.
The Natural Cafe restaurant on Higuera closed this week. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

After 13 years in downtown San Luis Obispo, Natural Cafe has closed.

The eatery known for its health-conscious food with a focus on vegan and vegetarian options shut its doors at 698 Higuera St. on Tuesday. The business opened in 2005.

Despite a contingent of regular customers and a visible location in the heart of downtown, business had been in decline and the 10-year lease on the property had expired, leading to the decision to close, said Jean Young, Natural Cafe's vice president of operations.

Young said the seven other Natural Cafe locations on the Central Coast — including restaurants in Santa Maria, Santa Barbara, Goleta and Ventura County — will remain open for business.

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Chicken Enchiladas at the Natural Cafe Jayson Mellom

The Natural Cafe company, owned by Kelly Brown, is headquartered in Santa Barbara.

"It's very sad for us," Young said. "We loved being a part of the community. People have been very good to us. SLO is great. Our staff was excellent. It was very hard to make the decision to close that restaurant. We had a lot of loyal customers."

Young declined to say what percentage of revenue dips the restaurant experienced over the past couple of years.

She said challenges included a shortage of available nearby parking, disturbances from neighboring construction and a shift in foot traffic away from the block to other parts of downtown.

The restaurant employed about 20 staff members. None are moving on to other Natural Cafe locations, though re-location was offered, Young said.

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East Beach salad at the Natural Cafe Jayson Mellom

A Natural Cafe manager at the San Luis Obispo location, reached by phone Thursday, said employees found out Tuesday that the business was closing that same day.

The employee — who declined to be named — said it has been an emotional week for employees, some of whom have been with the company for years.

"We put a little note on the door for the customers to say, 'Thank you,' " the employee said. "We had a real sense of community here, and the community has been awesome. It seems like it's one of the few places in SLO where you can get your food quickly, but really just sit down and relax. We had so many groups who were regulars, and a lot of them we'd see twice a week."

The employee said a couple of cooks have lost multiple jobs of late, with the closures of Pluto's and Thomas Hill Organics.

Young said the announcement of the same-day closure was because it can be difficult to ensure that employees will show up to work if a store is facing an imminent closure, and operations can be disrupted.

Despite the news, some employees remained in the store this week to help move equipment to the Santa Maria operation.

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The inside of the Natural Cafe. Jayson Mellom

It's unclear what business may move in to replace the Natural Cafe, and Young declined to say how much the lease was, only noting "it's expensive."

Meal prices mostly ranged from $8 to $12, and the restaurant stayed open until 9 p.m. seven days per week.

"We offer healthy food that's low in calories, and you order at the counter, but it's not pre-made," Young said. "Our goal isn't to be too loud or too groovy. It's a real homey place for people. That was and continues to be the draw at our locations."

Young said the business is open to relocating elsewhere in the San Luis Obispo area, but no plans have been made in the near future to do so.

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