The pastrami burger with fries and a beer at The Refuge. (Photo courtesy Mark Helsel)
By Kate Bradshaw
The Refuge, home to Menlo Park's most renowned pastrami and Belgian beer offerings, will be closing its location there on Jan. 20, its owners announced on social media Jan. 11. The other locations in San Carlos and San Mateo will remain open.
In a recent interview, co-owners and married couple Matt Levin and Melanie Roth cited a number of reasons, mainly economic, for their decision.
"We didn't rebound," Roth says. "We just can't keep up."
The restaurant was hit hard by COVID-19 and closed down for about seven weeks at the start of the pandemic, she says. And while The Refuge received a PPP loan to help cover some of their losses, the economic recovery, especially in Menlo Park, hasn't been what they'd hoped. Among the ongoing problems are that customers remain anxious about eating indoors, costs are rising because of inflation and minimum wage increases, and the switch to hybrid employment schedules has meant fewer customers in town. That in turn has meant a huge hit to their lunchtime and happy hour business, they said.
Another obstacle, they say, has been having to work through third-party operators like Forkable, Doordash and Grubhub to fulfill catering orders, which charge significant fees on top of existing costs. "It's almost impossible to sell catered orders to companies without going through these middlemen," Levin says.
"I feel like I'm Rip van Winkle," he adds. "I went to sleep and suddenly our concept is no longer a good concept for the times."
The Toasted Slaw #19, a sandwich with pastrami, cold Swiss cheese and 'crazy Russian' dressing on toasted rye. (Photo courtesy Mark Helsel.)
With the end of their lease approaching in Menlo Park, Roth says, it just didn't make sense to keep it. Menlo Park's downtown has been hit particularly hard compared to the other communities they operate in, and the vacant storefronts on Santa Cruz Avenue aren't helping to draw foot traffic their way.
"We hadn't seen any indication that it was going to increase at all," Levin says.
The San Carlos and San Mateo locations will remain open, and Levin and Roth say there's plenty to draw their Menlo Park customers a few miles up the road to their other locations. The San Carlos location, their first, was featured on Guy Fieri's "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives" about 10 years ago, and the San Mateo location, situated in the Hillsdale Mall, is their newest. It has a large outdoor dining area with heaters, a canopy and lights to mitigate customers' indoor dining concerns.
"It's not like we're not busy," Levin says. "We're just not busy enough."
The Refuge, 1143 Crane St., Menlo Park, 650-319-8197; 963 Laurel St., San Carlos, 650-598-9813; and 66 31st Ave., San Mateo, 650-458-3044; Instagram: @refuge_pastrami.