The original Red Robin, the storied student hangout at the south end of Seattle’s University Bridge, is closing March 21, its historic building deemed too expensive to maintain. “We’ve decided not to renew our lease,” said Jessi Klein, general manager of the eatery known for its big burgers and beer.
According to a company news release, the “decision was driven by the need for considerable investment to maintain the building and make the restaurant more efficient from an operations perspective.” As the restaurant to launch the brand more than 40 years ago, the first Red Robin location “has a rich history associated with it,” company president and Chief Operating Officer Eric Houseman said.
It was 1969 when Gerry Kingen — now owner of Salty’s restaurants — bought the Red Robin tavern. “I ran it as a tavern for a couple-three years,” recalls Kingen, whose clientele included the university crowd and local houseboat habitues. “Before we put in food, we were serving burnt popcorn and plastic-wrapped sandwiches prepared in an infrared oven, doing about 12 grand a month — which was big money back then.”
In 1973, Kingen did a thorough remodel of the hillside joint, built in 1916, and upgraded its menu. “We put a deck in the back, added two burgers, fish and chips and a strip steak out of Andy’s Diner. It wasn’t exactly Andy’s recipe, but the concept was the same.”
More than a few of my boomer-buddies remember the first Red Robin as the place where they could flash their fake IDs before sitting in front of a fabulously sloppy burger washed down with a beer — or three. Seattle historian Paul Dorpat remembers its storied jukebox: “Muddy Waters, psychedelic, none of that teen-y pop.” And he recalls the night Kingen closed the tavern in preparation for the makeover. “When you know a place is going to be destroyed, you `help’ it along the way,” he says of the “spirited community” some 200-strong, who enthusiastically brought down the house that night. “By 2 a.m., it wasn’t the same place that we showed up at earlier in the evening.”
In the wake of his splashy redo, business tripled, says Kingen. Red Robin eventually expanded to Northgate and elsewhere, and later franchised. “I basically created a grownup’s McDonald’s,” he says.
In 1985 Kingen sold a majority of his ownership to a Japanese corporation for $6 million. “I told them, ‘give me a check for a whole lot of money and you can run it yourself!’ — and that’s what they did.” A year later, he reduced his interest in the company to 10 percent and soon after completely divested all company ownership. However, he held on to the Red Robin property until 2004, when it sold for $2.2 million dollars to Montlake Plaza LLC, according to county records.
The 0.36-acre property on Fuhrman has been listed for sale for $2.5 million since last year and the listing indicated the site has the potential to be redeveloped into a mixed-use building with 29 residential units and 5,000 square feet of retail. space.
According to the property’s owner, Anne Marie Kreidler, one of the names behind Montlake Plaza LLC and Zesto’s LLC Zesto’s (yes, that Zesto’s–the Ballard burger joint), she’s got plans for the original Red Robin. “The restaurant itself won’t be closed for very long,” she said Monday. “We are in the process of leasing it to another restaurant.” No names mentioned.
Klein said nobody will be out of work as a result of the restaurant closure. “Our 50 employees are all finding new homes at other area Red Robins,” she said. The chain, now known as Red Robin Gourmet Burgers (and no longer owned by the Japanese corporation, Skylark) is publicly traded and headquartered in Colorado, with more than 430 restaurants in the United States and Canada. It says it may seek “an alternative location for a Red Robin restaurant in the University community in the future.”
The closure of his first Red Robin “doesn’t please me,” Kingen says. “Most companies that become an institution, they keep the original store. There will never be another original Red Robin, but that’s not how corporations work. Chain stores don’t manage by exception, they manage by rule, and that store isn’t the same size and doesn’t look like the new stores they’re building today.”
Meanwhile, Red Robin is inviting those of you who have special memories of the original restaurant to share your story with the company (via e-mail at Universitymemories@redrobin.com). They’ll randomly select a winner a week for the next three weeks and award winners with a $100 Red Robin gift certificate good at any location nationwide. Me? I’m inviting you to share your memories right here on All You Can Eat. Your reward? My undying love and affection, as always.