Employees who reported for work at Sam Seltzer's Steakhouses in Florida on Monday learned the chain had unceremoniously shut its doors.
"Closed for business" read signs taped on the doors at six stores in Clearwater, Port Richey, St. Petersburg, Tampa, Fort Myers and Sarasota. More than 300 employees are now jobless.
"Everything happens for a reason," sniffed Christine Yantakit, a 25-year-old server at the Port Richey store, wiping away a tear.
Server Joe Green rounded up the close-knit work crew for a final group photo with the trademark miniherd of cow statues that stood in front of each Sam Seltzer's.
"Come, you guys, we're doing it," he urged, brandishing a cell phone camera while a food bank hauled off trays of baked goods and bags of onions.
It was a sudden and brutal finish to a 15-year run by a moderately priced steak house chain that had just emerged slimmed down and supposedly retooled for profitability after two years in Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
"Due to increased economic pressure, an unstable restaurant environment and the inability to source reasonable funding, we are being forced to cease operations today," chief executive officer John Mountford said in a statement. "I want to thank all the dedicated employees who have worked diligently to restabilize a brand that has seen extreme pressure. I'd like to pay special thanks to all our loyal guests who supported us over the years."
He and other executives did not take calls to elaborate.
Started by grandsons of Sam Seltzer, a Montreal butcher, the Florida version ambitiously grew far ahead of demand the past five years. Harold Seltzer sold his interest in 2004 while his cousin Michael ceded control to lenders in a Chapter 11 bankruptcy five years later.
Borrowing deeply to bankroll expansion to 30 stores, the chain's fortunes headed south with a faltering economy in 2007. Penny-pinching diners — and those who ate more meals at home — doomed Sam Seltzer's to the fate of thousands of other casual sit-down restaurants nationally over the past three years.
After the company filed for Chapter 11 protection in 2008, it quickly closed four unprofitable stores and ditched plans for a store in Ocala that would have been the chain's 11th. Lenders who were owed $11 million ended up with ownership of the shrunken company.
Sam Seltzer's customers were surprised by the closing.
"We're very disappointed," said Dorothy Chizzoniti of Spring Hill.
Her cousin, Arden Volkle, said she loved Sam Seltzer's. Her family regrouped to head to a nearby Olive Garden.
"But we won't get steak there," said her husband, Bill.
Mark Albright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8252.
This story has been updated to reflect the following correction:Sam Seltzer, for whom grandsons Harold and Michael Seltzer named their restaurants, was never in the restaurant business. Harold Seltzer sold his interest in 2004 while his cousin Michael ceded control to lenders in a Chapter 11 bankruptcy five years later. A story Tuesday misstated the grandfather’s role and was incomplete.