SAY IT AIN’T SO: As if Santa Barbara’s boa-constricted middle class doesn’t already have enough to complain about, it appears Investec is poised to pull the plug on Deano’s, the über-iconic Mesa pizzeria, this Sunday. Normally, this would be yet another sad tale of what happens when an inexperienced operator collides with Santa Barbara’s stratospheric rents. Greed and incompetence pack a mean one-two punch; but that’s hardly news. So what’s different here?
The fact is that Deano’s — like the big banks of Wall Street and the Big Three of Detroit — might actually be too big to fail, despite its microscopic stature. This is more a function of Deano’s as cultural epicenter of the Mesa than the quality of Deano’s pizza, which, by the way, is plenty good enough, no matter what the New York pizza snobs may say. The Mesa emerged as the first real white-bread, middle-class, go-to-school-to-get-a-job, Leave It to Beaver neighborhoods to sprout up in Santa Barbara during the post-WWII building boom. People of relatively modest means could enjoy the same stunning ocean views normally the exclusive domain of the filthy rich. It was the California Dream long before The Beach Boys came along to sing about it. And Deano’s was there almost from the beginning. It’s where parents took their kids for birthday parties, where Little League, Pony League, and AYSO teams celebrated after games. Kids fed quarters into Deano’s pinball machines and video games, while parents yelled across the din, ordering pitchers and watching the game du jour, always broadcast past the breaking point of blurriness on Deano’s extra-gargantuan big-screen TVs. For thousands of Santa Barbarans — Mesa rats or not — Deano’s was where they hung out after school or on weekends. It was Santa Barbara before the chains, like an untreatable toenail fungus, took over.
Since then, the intersection of Cliff Drive and Meigs Road has become the pizza capital of the universe, a black hole of cheese, dough, tertiary meat products, and vegetable toppings. Through it all, however, Deano’s remained unique and its customer base stayed loyal. If anything, it’s grown. For most of its existence, Deano’s was owned and managed by the Moraga family. They walked the tightrope between profit and loss, aggressively fussing over every detail of their business. Six years ago, however, the Moragas sold out, in large part because their landlord, Investec, had jacked up their rents by 50 percent, from roughly $6,500 a month to $9,500. They sold to Lou Torres, who grew up in Santa Barbara, lives in Camarillo, and works for the Los Angeles Fire Department. Since Torres has owned Deano’s, the rents have risen further still to $11,500 a month. Torres reportedly has no experience in the restaurant business, and by many accounts, is not that engaged. Instead, he hired skilled, experienced managers — one of whom got married at Deano’s. But some matters require the owner’s involvement. Torres is said to be a notoriously difficult guy to get ahold of. Things slid. Details ignored. Bills not paid. The city threatened to shut off the water. By October, Torres reportedly was $5,000 behind on his rent. By all accounts, the situation is not getting better. Investec obtained a court order allowing them to take possession of their property. Torres and his supporters responded by waging a Facebook Internet blitz against Investec, making them look mean and greedy. About 4,000 indignant Deano’s supporters signed up. Billy Brace, the Investec partner dealing with Torres, has not relished being cast as the heavy. He’s as local as they come. He played on the same Santa Barbara High School football team as Torres’s brother, chasing around future Hall of Famer Randall Cunningham during practice sessions. He hung out at Deano’s as a kid and insists he wants it to survive. But Brace claims he can’t get Torres on the phone to discuss the company’s final offer.
For residents of the Mesa — miraculously still a refuge of sorts for Santa Barbara’s besieged middle class — these details are utterly irrelevant. Many remain pissed that Investec wasted more than $2 million giving their shopping center an entirely unnecessary cosmetic makeover. (Investec, according to local lore, was conceived back in the ’80s when real estate wunderkind Kenny Slaught teamed up with heirs of the Redken hair products empire and helped them invest their fortune in property. Coincidentally, a big-game hunting husband of one of these Redken heirs precipitated the demise of the now infamous Sheriff’s Council several years ago when he attacked a fellow millionaire boardmember during a board meeting, allegedly “bitch slapping” him in front of witnesses. The ensuing maelstrom of bad publicity sunk the political career of then sheriff Jim Anderson, paving the way for his successor, Bill Brown, to be elected sheriff.) Before the makeover, the center undeniably was frumpy, dumpy, and dowdy. But it was frumpy, dumpy, and dowdy, Mesa-style. Now, it’s bright, white, and excruciatingly generic. During the makeover, Investec removed much of the existing canopy of trees, replacing them with decorative palms, which cast no shade. Given the bad economy, many patrons still wonder why Investec got rid of long-term local businesses, like Video Visions and Heidi’s Hallmark. Likewise, they worry whether Fosters Freeze, another 50-year Mesa business, will be allowed to remain. Sure these businesses have had their struggles, but times are tough all over. Aren’t landlords supposed to help long-term tenants survive? How can empty storefronts possibly be good for business? Where locals fail, will chains rush in? And whatever happened to enlightened self-interest, anyway?
Maybe the Mesa is just a historical fluke whose time has expired, a middle-class haven only because the oil derricks that once abounded there made wealthy real estate investors turn up their noses. Maybe Deano’s fate is emblematic of the Mesa’s future. I’d like to go to Deano’s and ponder all this, but I hear the lines are so long it could take two hours just to get a pizza. No wonder it’s going out of business.