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July 22, 2014 at 6:00 AM

Construction threatens beloved Grinders shop

Photo courtesy of Grinders

Photo courtesy of Grinders

Mitch Gilbert has said it so many times over the past two months: “We’re open for business during construction!”

Now, the energetic owner of Grinders Hot Sands is at his wits end, with business plummeting during a massive improvement project to Aurora Avenue North.

“I’ve been doing everything I can to put a positive spin on it,” he said, but that’s not enough.

“I don’t know how we’re going to survive this.”

The well-loved Grinders shop in Shoreline is one of the best road food stops on the West Coast, with hot sandwiches “so stuffed you can almost hear them groan.” My favorite is the 1.5-pound Sauball Grinder, preferably consumed during one of Gilbert’s regular “hot jams” music shows.

The project imperiling the shop is a worthy one too, the latest segment of the miles of improvements planned for the Aurora Corridor.

The Grinders lot, never spacious, has lost its exit onto a side street, making the lot even tougher to navigate. It’s also at least temporarily lost some parking spaces. Gilbert said he’s been battling construction crews not to park in the ones that remain. Worst of all is the utility trench being dug in the street in front of the shop, and the accompanying equipment and blizzard of signs, arrows, cones and barrels that discourage diners from stopping in.

Driving by, it’s easy to understand Gilbert’s consternation. I couldn’t figure out, driving south on the busy highway last week, how to pull into the lot and be sure I could navigate my way out again. I decided I’d park further down the road and walk back, but no pedestrian access was allowed.

Since then, luckily, the city has responded to Gilbert’s plea to add better signage to the construction barrels on the street, and may temporarily re-open his side exit.

“Right now it’s tough,” acknowledged Kirk McKinley, transportation services manager for the city.

From McKinley’s standpoint, the situation should improve in a matter of weeks. “Once (the utility trench) is finished, they’ll come and put in the sidewalk and the curb, which will make it better, and the equipment will have moved on further north,” he said. Next year or late this year, the work will flip to the other side of the road. An outside management company is supposed to monitor and address business issues. (Gilbert, who said he’s dealt with annoyances from a missed garbage pickup (the truck couldn’t get into the lot) to lack of advance planning for power outages, said he hasn’t been helped.)

The city has dealt with business concerns throughout the years-long project as it has worked its way north. Staffers monitored sales tax receipts and vacancy rates carefully during the first mile of construction, McKinley said. The bad news: “Probably restaurants suffered more than any other use during construction.” The flip side, though, was that “destination businesses” fared better than impulse stops. Grinders is a destination; McKinley thinks customers will say “I’m going to Mitch’s tonight come hell or high water.”

After all, McKinley said, “He has the best food in the world. He really does.”

Gilbert isn’t so sure the situation will resolve. Too many loyal customers are assuming the problem will be solved shortly and that they can wait for their fix of Sauballs and Whack Whack salads. Most, he said, also assume he’s being compensated for the lost revenue, as some Seattle businesses were during light rail construction. He’s not.

It’s not only his restaurant that’s seen business tanking, he pointed out; neighboring owners are facing a crisis too. He’s tried patience. He’s tried good humor.

“We are restaurants. We don’t want a negative image. We don’t want people to think we are hurting, but we are,” he said.

As he told customers back in April when the machinery first appeared, “While it may be a little more tricky to come see us — we sure hope you do.”

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