Scenes from a closing restaurant… It’s noon on the day of the announcement, and workmen have already taken down the neon sign. “That didn’t take long, did it?” one of them cracks.
The chairs have all been turned upside down on top of the tables. Inventory will be inventoried. Canned goods will be returned, and what can’t be returned will be donated to the Poverello Center. Beverage stocks will be diverted to the nightclub or the theater, both still in business.
But as of Monday morning, Feb. 18, Marianne’s at the Wilma is closed for good—just two weeks short of what would have been the restaurant’s three-year anniversary on March 2. The usual reasons are given: the changing face of downtown business, the difficulty of competing with the retail maelstrom on North Reserve, the lasting effects of Sept. 11. Business had been good in recent weeks, but not quite good enough for Wilma owner Tracy Blakeslee.
“We’re not closing for business reasons,” says Blakeslee, “We’re closing because it’s not living up to my expectations. We could have gone on indefinitely at the pace that we were going, but I’m not satisfied just doing that.”
“The boxing caused me to have an epiphany,” Blakeslee adds. “I realized that we have 1,100 people coming to see boxing every Wednesday and they are happy. They pay good money to come in—ten dollars a ticket, which is half again as much as a movie—and they have a terrific time. Everybody leaves smiling. It really made me realize that [Marianne’s] just didn’t have what Missoula wanted. If you give people what they want, then they will come and be happy. But we just didn’t have the right formula.”
Wilma CEO Barbara Bick is among the 30 people who have lost their jobs. The official word just a few hours old, she’s still sitting at the desk in her second floor office. Blakeslee is allowing her the extended use of the office to do some “tidying up,” as she says, of business and accounts, and as a home base while she scouts for a new job. The air is heavy and sad.
“I tried my damnedest,” she says. “I guess it just wasn’t enough.” At sub-street level, beneath the Higgins Avenue bridge, the last of the restaurant employees are filing out the kitchen door, two weeks’ severance pay in hand. Line cook Colin Hickey and executive chefs Andrew Adams and Michael Ruhland share one last smoke break under the clack-clack of the pigeon repeller.
“We had a new menu that was ready to go tomorrow,” says Adams, “We’d been working on it for a month, and it was good, too. We had all the food ordered in and everything.”
Adams talks about going back to Michigan for the summer. Ruhland is thinking about California. Hickey has more immediate plans.
“I’m going to the bar,” he says. All three former employees watch as the coffee distributor ducks in through the kitchen door and slinks out again a minute later.
“Now that,” deadpans Hickey, “really leaves me with an empty feeling in my stomach.”