Blogs and social media sites have been abuzz this week with the news that Baja Bean Co.’s landlord decided not to renew the popular Fan bar’s lease when it expires next year.
As soon as word got out that it would have to vacate its prime location at 1520 W. Main St. in October 2013, Allums, Baja Bean’s managing partner, was inundated with calls and emails of support from friends, regulars and realtors trying to pitch him new spaces for the restaurant.
“For the first time, I think, my thumbs were actually sore from responding to texts, emails and Facebook requests,” Allums said. “I couldn’t be happier. In the last 24 hours, to get this kind of reaction and all the support, I’m ecstatic.
“Do I hope it changes the situation? Hell, yes. But even if it doesn’t, to be on the receiving end of all this RVA love, it’s nice.”
A Facebook group called Save Baja Bean popped up just hours after BizSense reported on the landlord’s decision. About 1,600 members have joined the group in support.
Baja fans posted pictures and memories of the place, even though it will be around for at least another year.
“Baja holds a special place in my heart,” writes Patrick Moran on the Save Baja Bean Facebook wall. “Across the street and through a narrow alley, some of my nearest and dearest friendships were fostered in the cozy confines of my favorite dive bar.”
Julie Loving writes, “Tell all your friends to support this please!!!! I worked for this company and the owner and his family are truly AMAZING people!!!”
Chris Wilke, a regular at Baja who first downed a drink there in 2005, said the draw for him is the friendly staff and the regular crowd.
“For the regulars, it’s like their Cheers,” Wilke said in a phone interview Wednesday. “Literally the second time I went there, people remembered my name. And that really stuck with me. They are like family to me. That’s a big thing.”
Baja is in the basement of the Stonewall Jackson Professional Center, which in the late 19th century was Stonewall Jackson Elementary School. Allums said that’s part of what he loves about the space, even though people sometimes criticize it.
“Yes, it has leaks, sometimes it’s musty and the bathroom stalls are small,” he said. “It’s in the basement of an 1890 elementary school, and the stalls were made for kids. We’ll never be able to recreate the atmosphere here at another location.”
Allums, known at Baja as “Jefe” (Spanish for “chief”), said he would put money into fixing the place up if he had some assurance that he would be in the building for a long time.
Baja offered to buy the building, Allums said, but could not come to terms with owner John Conrad. Conrad, a former Richmond City Council member, is a lawyer who works in the building above the restaurant.
Allums said Baja thought its lease was being extended through 2014 but found out in July that it was going to have to move next year.
The timing was especially frustrating, Allums said, because the past three years have been the best since the business opened in 2000.
“If you look at the normal lifecycle of a restaurant, years 9, 10 and 11 are not supposed to be the best,” he said. “I feel like Barbaro, you know. One moment I’m leading the pack, then the next I break my leg and they shoot me.”
Conrad told BizSense on Monday he wasn’t renewing Baja’s lease so he could redevelop the 10,300-square-feet space for a new tenant.
Conrad said he’s received 10 to 15 emails from people wanting him to reconsider his decision. A change of heart, he said, is not likely.
Still, Conrad said it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that Baja could stay put.
“The best thing for Baja to do is what they’ve been doing, and that is to look for alternative space,” he said. “I’m not going to say ‘never’ to letting Baja stay, but it really comes down to what kind of interest the space generates. And if they were to be considered, it would certainly be in competition with other tenants.”
Conrad said that he initially thought about trying to find a high-end tenant for the space but that he’s willing to give anyone a shot.
“Really,” he said, “we just want to get somebody in there that’s going to take care of the space.”