After more than 24 years of bringing the flavor of New Mexico to Arlington, Rosslyn's beloved Santa Fe Cafe will close its doors at the end of October.
As major office tenants move about, owner Kip Laramie faced a potentially smaller customer base, smaller space and higher costs to do business. Laramie, just a few years from retirement, had to make a hard decision.
"I didn't decide it as much as it was decided for me," he said.
Laramie — who has been active for years with the Rosslyn Business Improvement District, the Arlington Street People's Assistance Network and the Partnerships for a Healthier Arlington — said he will continue to be involved. Right now, he's focused on the restaurant's annual green chili festival — a celebration of food cooked with green chilies flown in fresh from their harvest out of the small town of Hatch in southern New Mexico.
Laramie, 59, has a reputation for his personal attention to details, his personal attention to his regular customers and generally being a personable guy.
"I've got so many regulars," he said recently. "I've got two people who came in tonight. His mom and dad were some of my first customers when I opened. Now, their kid, he's married, and he and his wife come here. And he's sad. He told me tonight that he won't be able to bring his children here. And that makes it hard. We've established an incredible web of people… that are some of the most interesting people you'd want to meet."
Laramie had wanted to retire in a few years and leave his business to his staff — three people have worked with him since he bought the restaurant in May 1988, and several others have been there more than 15 years.
He said his goal now is to find jobs for the 11 employees who will be out of work when Santa Fe closes. He's reached out to friends in the industry and the Arlington County Economic Independence Services to tell them good employees were about to become available. Two of his employees, a husband and wife, have become U.S. citizens since working at Santa Fe and now have a daughter in college.
Rossyln is changing.
About 1,300 federal employees left the building that houses Santa Fe on its ground floor, at 1500 Wilson Blvd., earlier this year. Laramie looks across the street and sees empty space. Boeing, just a few blocks away, is moving to Crystal City. And the Rosslyn Gateway project is in its earliest stages. He figured at least two years would pass before all of that space was filled.
And Penzance, which the owns the building Santa Fe calls home, was working on a deal with a chain restaurant that would require Laramie to build a new business in another part of the building — and in smaller space, he said.
With his lease set to expire around the end of October, the company offered to allow him to stay for about $1,800 more a month — increasing the cost he pays per square foot from $32 to $45. And building a new restaurant would cost at least $500,000, money Laramie was reluctant to pull out of his savings so close to retirement.
"There's going to be a lot of empty space in Rosslyn. And I just couldn't see spending $500,000 on a new restaurant when I didn't know if there would be anybody there to patronize," he said.
The restaurant's last day is tentatively slated for on or around Oct. 27. The date may be adjusted as the business begins the process of closing out.
Laramie will resign from the Rosslyn BID's board of directors, but will stay on as chairman of the organization's homeless services committee. The group gives A-SPAN about $150,000 a year specifically to pay for a counselor to work the streets of Rosslyn, along with job assistance and other programs for the area's homeless. On one hand, it's the right thing to do, he said. On the other, businesses don't want homeless people crashing on their steps or in their flower beds.
They also provide meals for the homeless at Gateway Park every night of the year, he said.
Earlier this year, Santa Fe Cafe was one of two local businesses that helped A-SPAN put together an abbreviated Restaurant Week for the area's homeless.
Laramie talks glowingly about the Partnerships for a Healthier Arlington, which helped birth the Second Chance program — a diversion program designed to combat binge drinking among teens. The group works with police, the judicial system, the school board, the county board, the health department and other agencies.
"I've learned so much," he said. "You have blinders on when you run your own business. …So this is a wonderful way for me to get outside of my personal business and give back to the community. And, it's just fun. I've met some fascinating people."
Laramie said he hasn't had more than 10 days off in a row in 25 years.
After Santa Fe closes, he's going to take a month or two for himself, take care of housework, maybe learn to play the guitar. He plans to look for a job — something community focused and, ideally, good-paying.
"I'm sure I'll be looking for a real job," he said. "Because I don't consider working at restaurant a real job. You don't make a lot, and it's a lot of fun."
In the meantime, he's making it a point to see his regulars and thank them for their business. They've been good to his restaurant and his staff, he said.
"There's certain people I owe it to," he said.