September 8, 2011 in City

Doug Clark: Cyrus O’Leary’s restaurant closing after 31 years

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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After a whirlwind 31 years, Erkki Oranen will be closing Cyrus O’Leary’s downtown on Sunday.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

It’s the end for Cyrus O’Leary’s.

Sunday marks the final day for this iconic downtown Spokane restaurant at 516 W. Main Ave.

Yeah, I thought about delivering the lousy news in a more palatable way.

But why sugarcoat it?

The only positive aspect is that there’s still time to drop in and top off a fine meal with an even finer slice of pie.

Be sure to give your respects to owner Erkki Oranen, who is pretty broken up about having to close Cyrus O’Leary’s after a wildly popular 31-year run.

Oranen, 58, cites a number of factors that led him to this decision.

The sour economy is a given, naturally.

And the restaurant business is more competitive than ever.

“If you see restaurant guys driving around now in Beamers, they’re leasing them,” he said with a dry laugh.

But the deal breaker came from Dru Hieber, the property manager who holds the lease.

“There’s no way I can make any money with what she needs to make,” Oranen conceded.

Remarkably there is no ill will between the two.

This is one of those “strictly business” situations you hear about.

“Spokane loves its landmarks,” Hieber said. “But sometimes you get tired and have to move on, too.”

She said she plans to “retool” the property into more lucrative enterprises; a hotel, perhaps, or some multi-use development.

Oranen has a bigger concern: finding jobs for 40 employees who, after Sunday, will be out of work.

Fifteen others will be absorbed into Tomato Street. That’s the restaurant Oranen co-owns with O’Leary’s creator, restaurateur and pie magnate, Cyrus Vaughn. (Oranen bought Cyrus O’Leary’s about a dozen years ago.)

“We’re a family,” said Oranen of his employees. “I know their names. I know their dogs’ names. That’s the sad part of this whole thing.”

This level of affection between a boss and his peeps might sound like a pipe dream.

But it was more than backed up by the workers I spoke with on Wednesday, just hours after the morning staff meeting where Oranen dropped his bombshell.

“We all love each other,” said Faith Pauna, a 22-year-old server who has worked four years at O’Leary’s.

“It’s hard not to cry. He (Oranen) cares about us so much.”

“Erkki is an amazing guy to work for,” echoed Deanna Klawitter, 31, a hostess and server with eight years at the eatery.

“It’s very sad.”

Oranen said the last year has been hell from the stress of knowing what was coming. He delayed his decision until after Labor Day in hopes his employees would have a shorter job search.

The strategy makes sense. This is the time of year when young seasonal servers, dishwashers and cooks head back to school. Any restaurants looking for quality hires should email Oranen at erkki@cyrusolearys.com.

“I would stake my reputation on anyone I would (recommend),” he said. “I really need these people to find jobs. I love them to death.”

Oranen’s affection for his workers probably comes from working his way up the T.G.I. Friday’s chain, beginning as a waiter.

In 1983, Vaughn hired the Finnish-born Oranen to run his fledgling but mammoth 10,000-square-foot restaurant.

Cyrus O’Leary’s was the area’s first restaurant to feature an interior adorned with collectible gewgaws galore: an autographed Elvis poster, stuffed critter heads, a vintage mechanical Ferris wheel, old advertising signs, a large Swedish troll, a mechanical trapeze clown …

The eye-catchers were a magnet to customers, especially families with young kids.

Oranen was brought on board to make the food taste every bit as good as the place looked. He did this, he said, by insisting on fresh ingredients and dishes made from scratch.

As you might expect, running such a large, full-service operation ain’t cheap.

“If we can make one or two cents on every dollar now we’re pretty happy guys,” he said.

But the venture not only succeeded, but served as the catalyst for a number of other eating establishments as well as Cyrus O’Leary’s pies, which began in the back of the restaurant. Today the pies are baked in a facility near Airway Heights to the tune of some 5 million a year.

I know the seductive power of the O’Leary pie only too well.

In fact, if I die young I’ve told my loved ones to list the coconut cream as a contributing factor.

Here are a few other Cyrus O’Leary nuggets to chew on.

• The restaurant’s May 1980 opening was postponed a few weeks due to the eruption of Mount St. Helens.

• The restaurant cost $500,000 to create. That, said Oranen, would be nearly $3 million today.

• More than 8 million people have dined at Cyrus O’Leary’s.

• The restaurant has brought in $78 million in sales and paid $5.5 million in taxes over three decades.

• Closing to the general public every Thanksgiving, 8,000 needy people have been fed for free.

• The restaurant has hired 1,100 employees in the last 31 years.

Here’s one last little-known fact about Cyrus O’Leary’s.

“I don’t know how many toilets I’ve unclogged here,” said Oranen, who often saves money by being the handyman.

“I’ve even got my own toolbox. To tell you the truth, I’m not gonna miss that part.”

Doug Clark can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or dougc@spokesman.com.

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