Two of downtown Escondido’s best-known restaurants, Continental Delicatessen and Vinz Wine Bar, are now history. The deli closed on Saturday after 52 years in business and 11-year-old Vinz held its last call on Monday.
Owners Vinnie and Machelle Griffin were forced to quickly shutter the side-by-side eateries at Grand Avenue and Kalmia Street over the past few days after they were served last week with an eviction notice for unpaid rent.
Vinnie Griffin acknowledged the restaurants had struggled to make ends meet in recent years. But he said he’d worked tirelessly since September to find an investment partner or a new tenant to assume the lease. But the landlord, he said, decided to move in a different direction.
“It’s been a battle these past five months to try to keep this thing going ... a big roller-coaster,” Griffin said. “Machelle will be happy to be done with the headaches but it will be sad for me to not be coming in here every day.”
On Monday, everything was half-off at Vinz. Even under gray and rainy skies, a line of longtime customers was waiting outside when the doors opened for lunch at 11:30 a.m.
Ten-year customer Garry Kinsella of Escondido picked out three bottles of wine to purchase for his home wine collection and was still mulling what he’d order for his final lunch at Vinz.
“I loved it here,” Kinsella said. “The owners were local, the food was good and the service was friendly. Vinnie was a good guy and I’ve known all the bartenders over the years.”
Part-time Escondido resident Kathy Nowak came into Vinz on Monday for one last Margherita pizza, her favorite item on the menu.
“I’ve been coming for six or seven years,” Nowak said. “It was a cozy, small place and friendly. We didn’t eat anywhere else downtown. I guess now we’ll have to try someplace new.”
Five-year customer Paul Katz of Escondido was also shopping for bottles of wine on Monday. He said he would miss the Wagyu burgers and the “decent” wine selection. He worried that the closure of both restaurants would further increase the seemingly blighted look of downtown.
But appearances can be deceiving, according to Michelle Geller, the city’s economic development director. Although there are a handful of vacant large retail buildings on Grand Avenue — including the shuttered Yardage Town, A Bird Haven and Draper’s & Damon’s stores — the street’s vacancy rate is just 10. 9 percent, just slightly above what she calls the typical rate to be expected.
Geller said two large properties downtown are likely to be leased in the next three to six months. And she predicts a bustling downtown once the former Palomar hospital property nearby is bulldozed for a planned 450-home and commercial development.
Geller said she’s sorry Vinz and Continental Deli won’t be there when that time comes.
“Vinnie has always been an institution in Escondido,” Geller said. “He’s actually ridden out a lot of the tough times that we’ve had. We’re really sad to see him go and wish him the best.”
Continental Deli first opened on Escondido Avenue in 1967 and it relocated to 120 S. Kalmia St. in 1984. In its early days, it was more of a German/European deli and market. The Griffins purchased the business in 2001 and it gradually transitioned into more of a sandwich/salad shop and pizzeria.
Griffin said the recession hit the deli hard in 2007, with business dropping off 40 percent virtually overnight and it never fully recovered. But that didn’t stop him from opening his dream business, Vinz Wine Bar, in the vacant space just across the patio at 201 E. Grand Ave. in February 2008.
He came up with the idea for Vinz in the mid-1990s during a visit to Oregon’s wine country. There he found a restaurant that sold wines by the bottle with a hot and cold buffet.
“I thought, this is exactly what Escondido needs,” he said.
Vinz got off to a rough start with a paperwork problem that prohibited the Griffins from selling wine until its liquor license was properly assigned. Over the years, they expanded their license to serve cocktails, expanded their menu from cheese trays to a full menu, built a dog-friendly patio and added live music.
But it wasn’t always smooth sailing and there were financial problems off and on over the years. Last summer, the Griffins said they hit another stumbling block when the state tax payment for their liquor license renewal was mailed to the wrong address. When the check didn’t arrive on time, the license was temporarily suspended.
For the week or so until the suspension was lifted, Vinz Wine Bar was closed, idling its 23 employees and digging the Griffins further into the hole. Even after it reopened, Griffin said there was no way to dig out so he started looking aggressively for investors until the clock ran out.
On Monday, Griffin was shuttling back and forth between the two businesses, talking to customers at Vinz, fielding phone calls from well-wishers and meeting with equipment dealers at the deli. Much of the restaurants’ equipment will be sold at auction. Some will be stored.
Griffin said he’s scheduled for a court hearing Tuesday morning where he hopes to negotiate a bit more time to evacuate the property because “there’s 18 years of memories I’m going through here and it is taking a little bit of time.”
What’s next? Griffin said they’ll rest a bit after nearly two decades of seven-day workweeks. Then he’ll start looking for jobs in the food, beverage and wine distributing industries. He also hasn’t ruled out the possibility of one day opening another restaurant somewhere else.
“We’ll see what happens,” he said Monday. “I loved being around all the people here. I’m going to miss that the most.”