For 45 years, generations of Tucsonans celebrated everything from Little League victories to birthday parties at the northwest side Sullivan’s Eatery & Creamery.
Soon, though, the restaurant at 6444 N. Oracle Road that started out as an outpost of the national Swensen’s burger and ice cream chain in 1977, will close for good.
Alex Mustaffa, who has owned the restaurant since 2017, said he will close no later than June 15, two weeks before his lease expires. But the closing could come sooner, he said, if he runs out of supplies or doesn’t have enough employees to keep the doors open.
“I think everything has its time,” Mustaffa said. “I think this business model, the time has expired on it.”
Until COVID-19 came along, the family-friendly, no-alcohol business model worked for Sullivan’s.
“It was a place that generated good memories for people,” said Jerry Sullivan, who with his wife Kathy had run the restaurant from 1986 until selling it to Mustaffa. “We had built up quite a following. I think some of that went away during the pandemic. A lot of people were afraid to go out and older people hesitated to come out because of how the virus affected different age groups.”
When restaurants were forced to close their dining rooms at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, Mustaffa transitioned to takeout. He operated a few so-called ghost kitchens — virtual restaurants operated out of existing restaurants through third-party apps — and streamlined the menu so that he wasn’t buying product that would ultimately go to waste. He even toyed with the idea of adding alcohol to the mix, which would have required about an $80,000 investment and at least three years to recoup it, he said.
Mustaffa, a financial strategist and analyst before he bought the restaurant, understood that would have been a losing proposition especially given the perfect storm brewing for independent restaurants like his.
When he reopened his dining room in May 2020, it was at half-capacity. He had trouble getting enough staff to work and a majority of Sullivan’s regulars, many of them older folks, didn’t return. Families also were staying away.
“I understand; I have a family,” said Mustaffa, a Tucson native and father of four young kids whose connection to the restaurant goes back to his childhood. “My wife isn’t taking the kids out as much. People have adjusted their lifestyles. Pre-COVID, three-day weekends were slammed; now, it’s the exact opposite. Any three-day weekend we’re just dead.”
When the Sullivans decided to retire in 2017 — Jerry Sullivan said they were 75 years old and no longer had the stamina needed to run a restaurant — Mustaffa saw the opportunity to buy it as a good investment. For the first couple years, he was right; the restaurant made record profits in 2018 and 2019.
But then the pandemic arrived and sales nose-dived. Longtime customers have yet to return in their pre-pandemic numbers. Even families have slipped off; sales of kids meals is down 50%, Mustaffa said.
Add into that mix nationwide supply chain issues, increased food costs and the hiring dilemma plaguing the hospitality industry and you have that perfect storm that Sullivan alluded to.
“I’m disappointed,” Sullivan said. “I think it just kind of sucked the life out of him. It never seemed to end. There were two of us when we were there, my wife and I. With Alex, he has a wife and four young children. He was by himself as far as running the restaurant. I think it just burned him out.”
Sullivan’s is the latest Tucson restaurant casualty. Since the pandemic, Tucson has lost dozens of restaurants including several that had been around for decades like Sullivan’s. Among them: Poca Cosa downtown, which closed in October 2020 after 36 years; the 25-year-old Fronimo’s Greek Cafe on East Speedway, which closed its doors in January 2021 after failing to negotiate a new lease; B Line Cafe on North Fourth Avenue, which closed in February 2021 after 20 years; and the 27-year-old south-side staple El Indio on South Sixth Avenue, which never reopened after the initial shutdown in March 2020.
Nationwide, some 90,000 restaurants, many of them independently owned, have permanently or temporarily closed since the start of the pandemic, according to a study by the National Restaurant Association. Restaurant industry sales in 2021 are down $65 billion from 2019’s pre-pandemic levels and the industry has 1 million fewer employees than it did in 2019, the association reported.
Mustaffa, who plans to return to his old job as a finance guy in August, said Sullivan’s will be open from noon to 5 p.m. daily until they close, although the operating hours could fluctuate depending on the number of employees available to work.