Wild Duck can't keep flying in current downturn.
The economy is supposed to be improving, but any recovery will be too late for one of Eugene's best-known brew pubs and music venues.
The Wild Duck Brewery and Restaurant will close on Jan. 1, bled dry by three years of "significant" losses, principal owner Bob Jensen said Monday.
Shuttering the 169 W. Sixth Ave. restaurant, brew pub and music club will disappoint customers and put 66 people out of work.
"My biggest concern is displacing people" in a weak economy, Jensen said. "We're just grateful that we can make their last paycheck."
The closure underscores the brutal competition in the glutted restaurant business. Jensen and his partners opened the Wild Duck to much fanfare only eight years ago.
Six employees will continue with Jensen's catering business and events management firm, Big Green Events. That crew has managed Art & the Vineyard, the Springfield Filbert Festival, the Freedom Festival in Eugene and other local celebrations.
Also, Jensen said he'll keep the affiliated Mallard Banquet Hall at First Avenue and Madison Street operating.
Gary Kingery, a longtime customer and former employee of the Wild Duck, lamented the looming closure. "It's been my home away from home. It's been a great place for the people of the city to gather. And the owners have been great supporters of the city of Eugene, the university and the Ducks."
The closing is the latest casualty among large, well-known downtown restaurants.
Earlier this year, West Bros. BBQ moved from Olive Street to merge with the affiliated River Ranch Steakhouse on Franklin Boulevard. Brew pubs have been a boom and bust business in Lane County and elsewhere nationwide.
The restaurant business is "just one extremely tough business to create a bottom line in," said restaurateur Pat McCallum, who helped Jensen start the Wild Duck in 1996.
Jensen said his business began to feel pressure in the recession that was exacerbated by the 2001 terrorist attacks.
While the catering and events management parts of his business were growing, sales in the restaurant, brew pub and music venue did not keep pace with dramatically rising expenses, including insurance, food, and grain for brewing beer.
Also, with the state's minimum wage increasing 40 percent since the Wild Duck opened, and another 15-cent-an-hour hike slated to take effect on Jan. 1, Jensen said, he opted to call it quits.
"This is a high-octane business that has been operating in a low-grade economy," he said. "This business demands a lot of fuel."
Jensen and McCallum, both veteran restaurant operators, started the Wild Duck in February 1996. They spent $2.2 million building the 14,000-square-foot restaurant and brew pub. They received financial help from former University of Oregon and professional football quarterback Chris Miller, who helped the restaurateurs secure a $1.8 million loan from Centennial Bank.
McCallum, who sold his interest in the Wild Duck in 2000, said the restaurant was undercapitalized from the start, partly because it cost $500,000 more than he and Jensen originally thought it would.
"That made things difficult from the outset," said McCallum, co-owner of Mac's at the Veteran's Club and McCallum's Custom Catering.
Jensen, 43, said attendance at the Wild Duck's music venue has declined. Fewer young people seem to be attending concerts, he said. The club used to fill its 400 seats on a Monday night blues jam, he said, but lately had trouble drawing half that on a Friday or Saturday night, he said.
Jensen and Miller, partners in the business, own the building. Jensen said he will seek a tenant, perhaps a brew pub operator or chain that wants a Eugene location. "I know that we will hear from people," he said.