By Alexa Vaughn
Seattle Times staff reporter
Jaws drop all the time outside the Fremont and Ballard locations of Paseo, ready to take big, sloppy bites out of some of Seattle’s best and most beloved sandwiches.
On Tuesday, customers’ jaws could only drop at the sight of a sign taped to the window of Paseo in Fremont: “Due to unfortunate circumstances, we are closing our doors,” the sign read. “We appreciate all the support and loyalty you have shown us over the years. We will miss you.”
The news that both locations had closed, and so abruptly, was unfathomable at first to fans who had braved the famously long afternoon lines to taste food prepared with secret recipes. Mournful tributes quickly spread on Reddit and other social media.
Yelp has ranked Paseo — most popular for secret sauce-slathered sandwiches stacked with grilled pork or Caribbean roast — No. 2 on the list of the top 100 places to eat in the U.S.
(For an appreciation of Paseo’s famed pork sandwich, read here.)
Although no one would give an official cause for the cash-only business’ closure Tuesday, it’s clear that Paseo’s president, Lorenzo Lorenzo, has had a lot more than secret recipes to worry about the last few months.
Four Paseo workers, who were fired in March, filed a lawsuit against Lorenzo, his wife, and the Paseo Caribbean Food business in September. The workers claim in the lawsuit, filed in King County Superior Court, that they worked about 80 hours a week without being paid time-and-a-half for overtime. About 40 hours of the workers’ wages were paid in cash and not documented in the official payroll system, according to the lawsuit. The workers also allege they did not receive rest and meal breaks as required by law. The four Hispanic workers also claim in the lawsuit that they were treated differently than non-Hispanic workers.
The defendants denied the allegations in an answer to the lawsuit filed in September. The response describes a cash tip-sharing arrangement that was discussed with employees as they were hired.
“The tips pooled among employees were significant and represented more than half of each plaintiff’s compensation for a representative period,” said the court documents.
Efforts to contact Lorenzo were unsuccessful Tuesday. Mary Austin, a minority owner named on the restaurant’s state business license, said she could not comment on the lawsuit or the closure.
The trial against Lorenzo and his business isn’t scheduled to start until next October. The workers’ lawyer, Trevor Osborne, said no settlement has been arranged and was surprised as anyone else that the locations closed altogether Tuesday.
One of Lorenzo’s landlords, Mark Tolsma, said he was blindsided by news of the Tuesday closure as well. He said Lorenzo had recently signed a 10-year lease for Paseo’s Fremont location.
“I had no idea. What I got was my daughter calling me from Hawaii saying Paseo’s was closing,” said Tolsma. “That’s kind of weird that it gets all the way to Hawaii before I even found out about it.”
An employee at the Fremont shop said he came to work Tuesday “expecting to make 5 million sandwiches” as usual, and was told by the owner that both the Fremont and Ballard branches were done.
“We know he didn’t want this to happen,” said another longtime staffer, who declined to give his name because the owners have generally been media-shy. He had no idea what prompted the move.
“He said — and I believe (Lorenzo)— he found out he had to close on Monday,” the worker said. “He said he was sorry and wished he could find a way to keep going.”
The fact that he didn’t left fans reaching out to talk about how much they’d miss Paseo. By late Tuesday, a link to a seattletimes.com story had been shared, liked or commented on more than 24,000 times on Facebook.
Paseo had been at its Fremont location for 21 years and in Ballard for six.
Back in 1995, when then-Seattle Times critic John Hinterberger wrote that Paseo had “the best pork sandwiches in town,” the cook told him it “was practically a stealth restaurant,” a hidden secret that had operated for nearly a year before even putting up a sign. It had been a mainstay since then on local and national listings of the nation’s best food. Paseo managed to keep its reputation for mystery as journalist after journalist attempted to interview Lorenzo about his recipes and personal history to no avail. For years, the “About” section on the business’ website has said “About page coming soon! Stay Tuned!” The closest any reporter seems to have gotten to Lorenzo’s personal background appeared in 2011 on KeysNews.com. According to the story about another Paseo restaurant in Key West, Fla., Lorenzo was a product of Operation Peter Pan, a program that allowed Cuban parents to send 14,000 children to the United States to escape Fidel Castro’s revolution.
If Lorenzo never steps forward to say why he closed Paseo here, an aura of mystery may linger around memories of the restaurant forever.
Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or email@example.com. On Twitter @AlexaVaughn. Rebekah Denn, Miyoko Wolf and Lewis Kamb contributed.
MORE FOOD NEWS: