Last call as landmark Cafe Gardens closes after 34 years

Restaurant that served a generation was a refuge for the community, UF.


Published: Saturday, May 1, 2010 at 11:46 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, May 1, 2010 at 11:46 p.m.

When the doors close tonight, it will mark the end of an era for Cafe Gardens.

When owner Steve McKinney was asked the reason for closing, he said to refer to his e-mail correspondence.

"In this economy, with our business plan my projections indicate that we would be unable to keep pace with the rising expenses in this location," he wrote.

Serving the Gainesville and University of Florida community since 1976, Cafe Gardens has been an enduring icon in a town where businesses come and go as frequently as the student population.

It all started in 1975 when a couple of recent college graduates, Mike Leet and Wade Blaker, made the trip from Georgia to Gainesville with a dream to open a beer and burger joint in a college town.

They asked McKinney to be their chief executive adviser, and by April 1, 1976, they were ready to open for business.

After changing hands in 1979, Cafe Gardens and McKinney reunited in 1983 and have been together since.

The restaurant's 34th anniversary was celebrated April 1.

Just a month and a day later, the doors will close for good.

The decision to close was not an easy one for McKinney, who announced the news to his staff on March 29.

"For the first few days, I couldn't talk to anybody about it," he said. "It was very difficult to tell the staff, but they were very supportive. I explained to them the situation and they all got up and said a bunch of nice things about what a great place to work it was."

McKinney declined to comment on the rent or the Smysor family. who owns the property.

The restaurant at 1643 N.W. First Ave. is nestled behind The Swamp Restaurant, another property owned by the Smysors.

"Times have changed," McKinney said. "I think that my concept has remained strong throughout the years - good products, made-to-order and personal service. We've kept true to that business model, but we've gotten to the point where I realized that to meet the rising expenses at this location, I'd have to change the business model."

As a result, he is officially retiring from the restaurant industry when Cafe Gardens closes.

He said he is involved in starting a new business to help home and business owners save on utilities costs.

John Fleming of Trimark Properties has been acting as a media liaison for the property owners.

"They have thoroughly enjoyed having Cafe Gardens there for over three decades and wish Steve McKinney well in his retirement," Fleming said.

The owners "will look for a similar neighborhood concept to replace it," he said. "There aren't any development plans for that site or any other sites in the area."

Bruce Clary, assistant director of the Office of Technology Licensing at UF, has been a patron for 25 years.

"It's like a loss in the family," he said. "I was shocked when Steve told me and I told everyone I know it's closing so they can go there one last time before it closes."

Clary described Cafe Gardens as his "island of tranquility from the office" that took only a few minutes to get to from campus.

Devon Vlasin has been working at Cafe Gardens for almost six years and has been the kitchen manager for more than four years.

"It's upsetting. An icon in the community is shutting down and is not going to be here for people to enjoy in the fall," he said.

Vlasin will miss the tranquility Cafe Gardens has provided.

"Our patio dining area alone is very serene and peaceful, especially being so close to campus," he said. "On game days and different football games, basketball games or concerts, it was almost like a getaway from the hustle and bustle of life on University Avenue. This provided a great place to eat great food, have a few beers, sit back and relax, and enjoy the weather."

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