SOHO — The employees surmised there were problems when their paychecks bounced and managers gave them envelopes of cash.
Those tremors a few months ago preceded the shuttering last week of Tijuana Flats, the fast-casual spot known for $4.99 "Taco Tuesdays" that drew lines of young adults.
The spacious restaurant with a broad street-facing porch became a South Tampa mainstay over its five years with ample outdoor seating to enjoy Mexican beers, burritos and a plethora of hot sauces with names such as "Smack My A-- and Call Me Sally" to pour over tortilla chips.
Employees weren't notified until after the restaurant locked its doors.
"I need to find a job and it's finals weeks," bemoaned Liz Lee, 20, a University of Tampa student who had worked at Tijuana Flats since the fall of 2009. "We'd have lines out the door every lunchtime. It wasn't like the store wasn't getting money."
Yet paychecks bounced at least twice, she said. Leigh Cardi, 21, another employee, said the staff was told to cash checks only at Bank of Tampa at one point.
They didn't know if financial problems caused the closure, and owner Steve Finelli did not return phone messages for this story. Signs taped to the window indicated a burger restaurant would reopen soon in the space.
When the Tex-Mex eatery opened at 1617 W Platt St., it became owner Finelli's fifth Tijuana Flats franchise. The two-story building had 5,760 square feet — more than double the size of the average Tijuana Flats, according to the chain's website.
Last week, a few unknowing lunchtime visitors came by. They peered through the locked doors, only to be turned away by a notice that directed fans to a N Dale Mabry Highway location.
"This location is now closed," a statement said. "We thank you for your patronage. Look for a Stacked Burgers Cafe to open here shortly."
Finelli told Tijuana employees that he would operate the new restaurant and they can reapply for a job once it opens, Cardi and Lee said. A telephone recording on the old Tijuana Flats' phone number indicated that Stacked Burgers Cafe would open in two weeks.
Tijuana Flats opened in 2006 during a burrito craze in SoHo.
That same year, Chipotle opened at 533 S Howard Ave., replacing Ho Ho Chinese Restaurant. So did Lime, the Latin-themed sports bar at 915 S Howard Ave. known for upscale chicken nachos, tacos, enchiladas and other tapas. Moe's Southwest Grill, a few miles away at Neptune Avenue between Dale Mabry and Church Street, had opened a year earlier.
The Tijuana Flats chain was established in 1995 in Winter Park, featuring made-to-order Tex-Mex fast food. Four of the restaurants remain in Tampa while more than 70 locations exist in Florida, Indiana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Like Chipotle, the company promotes its healthy ingredients like zero transfat cooking oils, hormone-free white meat chicken, fresh produce, no lard, and "Power Lite" options such as whole wheat tortillas, low-fat cheeses and fat-free sour cream.
The purple Tijuana Flats building was painted with murals of cartoon pirates inside that gave it a Gasparilla flavor. The restaurant hosted local fundraisers, giving a percentage of its sales to causes, like that of a woman who needed a lung transplant in 2009.
Dennis Meyers, president of the South Tampa Chamber of Commerce, was a fan and said the spot is in a prominent location. After years of watching businesses cut back and fold, Meyers said, South Tampa has seen an upswing in business growth. He's optimistic about the building's future.
"Sad it's gone," Meyers said. "We are seeing businesses growing and coming back. People are hiring. It's slowly starting to get better."
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.