If you dropped by 24 W. Figueroa St. during lunch hour on just about any workday over the past three years, you would be hard pressed to find a seat. A buzzing mix of downtown workers, city officials, newspaper reporters, district attorneys, and assorted others looking for fresh, tasty, organic grub clogged the bright interior of Savoy Cafe from about 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. every day. Relatively new to Santa Barbara’s eatery landscape, the cafe – with its best-in-town salad bar, hot soups, gut-busting sandwiches and always impressive hot/cold deli case – almost immediately became a favorite of folks from all walks of life. That is, until last week, when regular customers were greeted by a locked door and something that is becoming all too common around these parts: a farewell note taped to it.
“We had such awesome customers, and I feel awful about pulling the plug on everybody, but we just couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t make it financially,” explained noticeably distraught Savoy owner and head chef Paul Shields late last week.
Opened in October of 2005, Savoy closed for good on December 2. Flying on the wings of uncompromisingly organic cuisine along the lines of tofu coconut curry, stuffed chicken breasts, a ridiculously well-stocked salad bar, and a sandwich known simply as The Gibraltar, Shields, who had previously been the foods director at Lazy Acres for 10 years, gave downtown Santa Barbara something it had been craving: healthy, fast food with a casual yet elegant atmosphere to boot. And it showed: According to Shields, the cafe, which was also open for breakfast and dinner, was doing about $1 million of business a year practically from the get go. “It was awesome,” said the Goleta native and father of four, before adding, “but it just goes to show that you can’t assess a business by how good it looks.”
In contrast to the closure of other beloved eateries and businesses recently, the Savoy’s can’t be blamed on anybody but himself, Shields said. His bottom line took a hard hit when the Santa Barbara economy imploded in the fall, but he said the writing was on the wall for a long time. It began with five months of extensive work on the space before it even opened its doors, including the installation of a state-of-the-art kitchen, new refrigerators, display cases, and extensive custom woodwork. “We put everything we had into this place. And then we put in even more,” said Shields, who figures he was averaging 90-hour work weeks since last July, trying to make ends meet. Unlike most restaurateurs, he financed the entire thing himself, putting everything from his house to his 401k on the line. “It was a labor of love, man. I didn’t get screwed by anybody. I was just over-extended.”
Attempts to find a buyer or a silent partner in recent weeks didn’t pan out and shortly after Thanksgiving it was clear that, despite its popularity, the cafe couldn’t keep going. “It hurts, there is no doubt about it,” said Shields, before adding, “but we’ll be back. We just have to regroup. Plus now I’ve got a whole book of mistakes I’ve made that I won’t make again.”