The Kapok Tree Restaurant, a flamboyant Clearwater landmark for 33 years, closed without warning or explanation Tuesday, leaving roughly 300 employees without jobs and faithful diners distressed. "This is not a restaurant, it's an institution," said Linda Diamond, an Indian Rocks Beach resident who had brought her friend to see the restaurant.
Aaron Fodiman, president of Kapok Tree Corp., did not return telephone calls Tuesday to explain why the huge restaurant had "closed" signs on its doors.
The Kapok Tree had been protected from its creditors under federal bankruptcy laws since the summer of 1988. A judge recently dismissed the case. While the restaurant was reorganizing, it sold two of its other restaurants, including one near Madeira Beach, to pay off some of its creditors.
At lunchtime Tuesday dozens of people drove into the parking lot of the 1,700-seat restaurant on McMullen-Booth Road with puzzled looks on their faces. Many drove by the front door, rolled down their windows and asked if the closed sign beside the road was for real.
"Oh my goodness," several women said when told it was true.
Twenty-two women from Top of the World, a large condominium retirement community, had reservation for a luncheon. Some even had discount coupons, clipped from Tuesday morning's paper.
Sylvia Abrams had called the night before to make sure that everything was set for the luncheon.
"They said the tables were even set," she said.
Eric and Pearl Collins of Palm Harbor, who said they have been going to the restaurant for 30 years, got out of their car and stood in front of the doors in disbelief.
Ms. Diamond said the Kapok was one of the places she visited when she moved here from New York three years ago.
"I was in culture shock so I went to live in Ruth Eckerd Hall every night," she said. She would eat dinner at the Kapok Tree. She frequently brought her young daughter along to attend ballets. "We would eat in the pink room. That was her favorite. She thought she was being enchanted by the Sugar Plum Fairy," she said.
Employees were as surprised as diners. Many arrived Tuesday and found a typed note on the employee entrance.
"We regret the Kapok Tree Restaurant has been closed. Your paycheck will be mailed to you on May 20," the note said.
Robert Ross, the restaurant's kitchen manager and supervisor of 100 employees, found out the news when he arrived for work about 8 a.m.
"I would have rather taken a cut in pay than lose my job," said Ross, who said he has worked at the restaurant for 10 years, since he was 17.
Ross was escorted into the building by an employee from accounting to pick up his personal items, he said. He also took the list of all his employees' telephone numbers and planned to call them all.
He tried to call a woman who had been a baker at the restaurant since 1968, but he wasn't able to reach her.
"I feel terrible," he said. "In 1968 I was 5 years old."
Ross said business had been down, but not enough to account for a closing.
"We had 3,000 people here Sunday" for Mother's Day, he said. "We had the people coming in. Whatever happened was obviously out of our reach."
Ross and assistant manager Dennis Bryant said there are several banquets scheduled for this week and two weddings scheduled for the weekend.
Plumb Elementary School was scheduled to have a 25th anniversary banquet for 130 people at the restaurant on Saturday. They found out that the restaurant was closed when one of the banquet planners called the restaurant to give a final number of attendees, principal Mike Skaroulis said. At the last minute Tuesday, the banquet planners were trying to find another location.
Mystery Dinner Theater, a weekend feature at the Kapok Tree for the last year, has moved to the Sea Hawk Restaurant, 1721 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd., and will perform this Friday and Saturday, said Mark Fabian, a co-owner of the production.