Exit interview: 'Mike's' closes in Sellwood
The restaurant has long been the place to meet and eat
It's true: The last day of Sellwood's famous – some say historic – burgers, fries, and shakes restaurant, Mike's Drive-In, at the corner of S.E. 17th Avenue and Tenino Street was open for business was Saturday, December 17, fittingly "customer appreciation day".
Sitting down with THE BEE in the dining room, owner Todd Freeman first wanted to make it clear: His Milwaukie and Oregon City restaurants will stay open.
Changing business conditions, and the fact that he's been an independent fast-food entrepreneur for 40 years, led him to the decision to close the Sellwood location and sell the property, he told us.
"I started working at Mike's Drive-In when I was 14 years old; bought the Mike's in Milwaukee from Mike Martin when I was 21; and I purchased this location 30 years ago," Freeman said.
After being the hands-on manager of Mike's for four decades, Freeman said, "I'm kinda tired; I'm still working 50 to 60 hour weeks and I'd like to 'slow down' a little bit. Over the past few years, reducing the business to two locations seemed like a reasonable option."
His small iconic Milwaukie drive-in does well – and it's only two miles from Sellwood, at Highway 224 and Harrison Street in Milwaukie. "And, the Oregon City location has been completely remodeled, making it like brand new, this year."
Other business pressures include finding good employees, competing with multinational fast-food chains, and the impending increase in the minimum wage.
"And, of all three locations, to be honest with you, it's hardest to do business in the City of Portland," Freeman said.
Instead of closing the Sellwood restaurant and selling off the property, Freeman said he considered selling the on-going business.
"But, if I sold to a new owner, they'd want to keep the 'Mike's Drive-In' name. Because it's not a franchise, I can't demand that the new owner runs the business the way that I do, and maybe destroy our reputation.
"Likely, instead of using ground chuck for hamburgers, they're going to use ground beef – most people don't know the difference – but there's a huge difference," Freeman pointed out. "Then, instead of using long shoestring French fries, they're going buy cheaper 'shorts and pieces'. Next will be making ice cream shakes with a low butterfat mix, instead of the high quality mix we use."
And, selling the business to a new owner is risky, Freeman said. "Nine out of ten restaurant businesses sold fail, and 'go back' to the original owner who will have to try to build up the business again, or, try to sell a closed, empty business."
When a developer talked with him a couple of years ago, Freeman considered his offer to purchase the property.
"I did know that [the developer's] ultimate plan was to redevelop the property. After we made the agreement about a year ago, I leased back the property from the investor, and that lease is up on December 31," Freeman said. "I've learned that the developer plans to build an apartment building on the site."
According to some reports, the property will be developed by David Sackhoff's Urban Development Group into a 78-unit apartment building.
Some have decried the situation, pointing out that Urban Development Group has a history of building high-rise apartment buildings, with little or no on-site parking. But, as Freeman pointed out, it is the City of Portland's zoning and land use codes that permit and encourage such development, not landowners.
A series of emotions flashed over Freeman's face when asked how he felt about leaving the Sellwood Mike's story behind.
"This is really hard for me. I'm proud that we're so very unique, from the food we serve, to the great employees we have who want to work with a small, local business.
"To be honest with you, it's pretty emotional for me right now," Freeman continued. "It's hard not to become teary-eyed. Although I do spend time working in the office -- being in the stores, with our staff and customers, is what I really love. I absolutely love our customers."
Freeman paused, and drew a deep breath before he continued.
"In a way it feels like I'm letting our customers down. The goodbyes the last week in business, where I'm sure I'll pretty much be, in here all the hours we're open, is going to be really difficult. There will be times in all need to leave to get my mind clear.
"I've never done it, so I don't know exactly how difficult it will be, but based on the way I feel right now, it's going to be hard, really hard," Freeman said.
Given the opportunity to speak directly to his Sellwood customers, Freeman said, "I thank you all so much for your loyalty. It's been my pleasure to serve you all of these years. I hope you understand that it's time for me to slow down a little bit. I do hope you come and see us at the other locations – Milwaukie is only about five minutes away.
"I'm definitely going to have a 'hole in my heart' about closing this store for quite some time."