Pittsfield's popular Dakota Steakhouse serves last meal
PITTSFIELD -- The phone rang continuously at the Dakota Steakhouse on Monday morning. But instead of taking reservations, staff members were canceling them.
With its parent company beset with financial problems after recently coming out of bankruptcy, the Dakota, one of the Berkshires' most popular restaurants, closed for good at the conclusion of dinner on Sunday night.
The last restaurant in a small chain of steakhouses in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Vermont, the Dakota had opened in Pittsfield in 1984.
The Dakota had about 50 employees, 30 of them full-time. They will all be eligible to receive unemployment compensation, but won't receive a severance package, according to general manager Douglas Hartnett. The average length of tenure for full-time employees was 12 years, he said. The longest-serving employee had been at the Dakota for 22 years.
"I'm obviously sad," said Hartnett, who had been employed at the Dakota for 14 years. "This is like my family. I see most of these people outside of work."
Hartnett said the employees were informed on Saturday that the restaurant would be closing the following day. They did not take the news lightly.
"No anger," Hartnett said, "but a lot of crying and hugging."
Some employees who weren't scheduled to work on Sunday came in anyway to have their pictures taken with their colleagues.
"Then we got unusually busy and some staff members began helping out in civilian clothes," Hartnett said.
A few employees were at the restaurant on Monday, answering the phones and tying up loose ends.
"We've got to clean up," said assistant manager Dan Flynn.
The reaction from customers -- who came for the steaks, shellfish and salad bars -- to the Dakota's closing was "overwhelmingly mostly sorrow," Hartnett said.
"They can't believe it," he added. "Everybody has some kind of iconic-like event that happened here."
Customers holding gift cards should contact the Dakota's San Diego-based parent company, Pittsfield DWH LLC, at (858) 874-1846 to resolve those matters.
In a statement issued on Monday, Pittsfield DWH LLC cited "economic pressures arising from cash seizures following an inability to structure payment terms on historic tax debt" that had made "continued operations unsustainable."
Pittsfield DWH LLC is an affiliate of DWH1 LLC, which are both wholly owned by Floyd Acquisitions LLC of San Diego. Both companies filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in Idaho in April 2011. They both came out from under bankruptcy protection only recently, according to Hartnett. The company closed sister restaurants in Avon, Conn., Latham, N.Y., and Manchester, Vt., two years ago after filing for bankruptcy. The chain's restaurant in Rutland, Vt., closed last year.
"The handwriting has been on the wall for a little while," Hartnett said. "There was a large debt issue within the company as a whole. In Chapter 11, they tried to resolve that.
"When they came out, they thought it would get better," he said, "but it was actually worse."
Susan Schulze-Claasen, a managing member of Pittsfield DWH LLC, did not return a telephone call seeking additional comment.
But in the statement, Schulze-Claasen expressed regret about having to close the restaurant.
"It's certainly sad to be closing an operation that has been creating memories for so many years," Schulze-Claasen said. "Our guests have been wonderful and our employee teams inspiring."
She said management was "immensely grateful" to the community for allowing the Dakota to be a partner in so many celebrations and dining experiences.
"I personally want to thank all of my guests and employees for their support during my tenure," she said.
A note taped to the restaurant's front door thanked "our guests for all of their years of loyal patronage. It has been a pleasure to serve you and our staff will also cherish the memories that have taken place here."
It was unclear Monday to whom Pittsfield DWH LLC owes money. But the company recently resolved all of its financial issues with the city of Pittsfield. Amresco Commercial Finance LLC, of Boise, Idaho, which holds the mortgage on the restaurant, paid the city $131,625 on March 29 to resolve outstanding real estate, property and water and sewer taxes that Pittsfield DWH LLC had owed the city from 2011 through June 30 of this year, according to the tax collector's office. The company will owe the city $1,083 in water taxes when the next bill is released on May 3.
The Dakota opened on South Street in July 1984 on the site of a former Howard Johnson's restaurant. Originally built in 1954, the restaurant was destroyed by fire in March 1988, but re-opened that October following more than $1.25 million in renovations.
Hartnett didn't know if Pittsfield DWH LLC has found a buyer for the Dakota.
"I know people are interested," he said. "But I don't think there's any pending deal if that's what you're asking me."
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