A perfect storm of circumstances led to the unexpected closure of the Whiskey Creek restaurants in Mammoth and Bishop this past Friday, but the reaction from shocked community members just may have saved the Bishop eatery.
Whiskey Creek owner Greg Alexander said Monday that an outpouring of support from local residents on Friday and over the weekend reinforced a passion to overcome the challenges he’s facing and re-open the Bishop mainstay.
According to Alexander, the restaurant’s Mammoth location has long struggled with lease issues, which made business difficult. But the nail in the coffin came in the form of three consecutive dry winters, paired with summer wildfires and a government shutdown of national parks that slowed tourism that resulted in poor returns for both restaurants.
Whiskey Creek is a C Corporation, which means the businesses are, according to Alexander, “joined at the hip.” The Bishop and Mammoth restaurants are essentially one business with two locations. That means that whatever happens to one location has a direct impact on the other, which is why both businesses closed Friday.
Over the past several years, Alexander said the Mammoth business’ lease situation has been shaky at best, as the property changed hands and new landlords with new desires and expectations came and went.
Ultimately, Alexander said he was looking at letting go of the Mammoth restaurant so he could focus his attention on the Bishop location.
“Every spring I evaluate if I want to let go of the Mammoth Whiskey, especially since (the real estate market collapse in) 2008,” Alexander said. “The last two years, I thought I needed one more winter. At the time, I didn’t look at it as a high risk, because even a normal winter would have let me move down to Bishop easily.”
In December, Alexander was given 90 days to vacate the Mammoth property, per the lease agreement with the property owner.
“When you close a restaurant, you’re still due for payables for 30 days,” Alexander said. He explained that the lease agreement required him to close the business, cutting off revenue, while he was still on the hook for the businesses bills for the next month.
If he were to close the Mammoth branch of the restaurant on his own, Alexander said he would have done so in the spring, when Mammoth business begins to slow and business at the Bishop restaurant begins to pick up, allowing for a smooth transition.
But when notice came that he would have to close the Mammoth location mid-winter, Alexander had to review his accounts and see how the numbers looked to determine how he would proceed.
The numbers didn’t look good. “Mammoth, for January, was estimated to be over $200,000 down from what it would be for an ‘average’ winter,” Alexander said. “I looked at the numbers and I saw that if we stayed open through Thursday (Jan. 23) we would have enough money to pay the employees” at both locations.
He said ensuring that his staff could be compensated was a top priority. Staying open beyond last Thursday would have incurred more costs to the businesses. “Friday’s closure was a matter of paying our employees while the money was available,” rather than trying to stay open and risk not being able to make payroll, Alexander said. “Having worked here for 15 years, I love this restaurant. I am heartbroken over having to let go of my employees, and the loss of jobs” in the community.
In all, the Bishop and Mammoth locations of Whiskey Creek employed more than 100 residents. In Bishop, Alexander said he had about 60 employees working in part-time or full-time capacity. Between the two restaurants, he said payroll averaged about $50,000 every two weeks.
While preparing to close the two restaurants last week, Alexander said there was a “glimmer of hope” in the back of his mind that he would be able to work out a plan that would allow him to permanently close the Mammoth location and eventually re-open the Bishop restaurant.
That glimmer of hope grew Friday as news of the restaurant closures began to spread through the local communities.
“Since Friday, the calls that I’ve gotten offering help and the people wanting it to work was incredible,” Alexander said. “It was unbelievable … the response we got.”
Knowing that the community is behind him, Alexander said his goal is to raise enough money to take out the notes on the Whiskey Creek property and business in Bishop.
If the best-case scenario plays out, and he is able to refinance the loans for the property and business, Alexander said Bishop’s Whiskey Creek could re-open within 90 days.
If that plan comes to fruition, he said he would be proud to take on a more personal role at the stand-alone restaurant.
“I’m a numbers guy, but I’m a hospitality guy first,” he said. “I would look forward to being in Bishop alone and being the guy that guests see all the time. It takes a unique individual to be able to run a restaurant this size,” and with only one location to manage, “I look forward to being that guy.”