The closing of a popular canalside restaurant known for its history, good food and lively summer patio music has this small community wondering how it will fill the void.
The Basket Factory Restaurant & Marina at 2 Watson Ave. closed Jan. 30 after 30 years in operation, the past decade under the ownership of sisters Julie Reigle and Dawn Thompson, both of Middleport.
"It's heartbreaking," Thompson said. "We put our hearts and souls into this place, but we've been struggling the past couple of years and weren't able to get financing. We tried every bank under the sun and were turned down. We finally went to an attorney who recommended we close our doors immediately."
Thompson said she and her sister operated the restaurant, while their father, Larry Cummings, joined them in ownership of the buildings and property. The site also includes a brick building and small marina with four boat slips.
The spacious restaurant served 125 on the main floor, with seating for another 50 upstairs in the banquet room and 80 outside on the patio. Thompson said the patio was expanded twice in the past 10 years.
The business employed nearly 20 part-timers and another five full-time employees.
What she will miss most is "the people," she said. "I'll miss the friendships that have developed over the years. A potential buyer would have a huge client base here, who loves this place."
"Nobody in the village saw this coming," Mayor Richard Westcott said. "This will be a substantial loss to the village. The restaurant brought in a lot of people. We'll also feel the sudden impact of the loss of taxes right away. Hopefully, we'll have new owners there."
"In the summers, they had people following the local bands coming in, and there were two big yacht clubs that supported it," Westcott said. "Those people would come in and stay the weekend here. They had been coming for years for dinner and the entertainment."
"My heart goes out to them," said former Mayor Julie Maedl. "I know this was a dream of theirs, and I applaud them for having had this restaurant for nearly 11 years. I know they would have tried everything to keep it going. But it's so slow between January and March. By May everything is good."
"When I was a member of the Western Erie Canal Heritage Commission, I always looked to the Basket Factory as one of our biggest drawing cards for tourism," Maedl recalled. "My hope is that someone comes in and purchases it and keeps it going as a restaurant, because this leaves a huge hole here."
The restaurant was known for its high-end dining, banquet facilities and popular patio parties on Sunday afternoons, from Memorial Day through September. The restaurant owners and village officials worked hard to appease both patrons and neighbors in containing the decibel levels of the music in the past few years.
The restaurant is steeped in history; it was the site of the Royalton Basket Co., established around 1893 to meet the demands of local fruit farmers. The factory continued to make bushel and half-bushel baskets until it closed in 1934. It was then used for storage until the 1970s, when it was restored by new owners Jim and John Harmon, who operated a restaurant there for the next five years.
Sharon Schaefer purchased it and continued restoration, opening her restaurant in 1978. Thompson and Reigle opened their business in May 2001.
"The restaurant business is a tough business to make money in, especially if the economy tanks," Westcott said. "People just don't have the money to come out to dinner as often and spend as much money. Winters are especially tough."
Thompson said the "question of the day" has been what people who have gift certificates for the now-defunct restaurant can do.
At least one restaurant, the Crooked Door Tavern, 469 E. State St., Albion, is honoring gift certificates purchased for the Basket Factory at 50 percent value from now through June 15, with certain restrictions.
"And there may be a couple of other Lockport restaurants honoring our gift certificates, who haven't announced it yet," Thompson said. "Our intention is to negotiate our gift certificates into the sale when we find a buyer, too."