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Friday, Jul. 30, 2010

Walla Walla's CreekTown Cafe temporarily closes

WALLA WALLA -- CreekTown Cafe, one of Walla Walla's quintessential Wine Country dining destinations, closed suddenly this week.

The 8-year-old restaurant at 1129 S. Second Ave. was shuttered in what operators describe as a temporary closure.

A letter posted on the door of the Southgate business said the closure is "due to a change in ownership."

"We would like to thank you for all of your patronage over the past many years," it continued. "We hope you will support the future of CreekTown in the same manner you have supported us."

The note was a shock to a group of four women planning to celebrate a birthday luncheon there after making a reservation Tuesday. A staff member at the neighboring Walla Walla Clinic Physical Therapy said she, too, had seen no previous sign of a closure.

A call to restaurant co-founder Bill Pancake Jr. was not immediately returned. But shortly after a message was left, a note was posted on the business' Facebook page acknowledging the temporary closure. Operators hope to open in two weeks to a month, the message said.

CreekTown Cafe was started by Pancake and Tom Uberuaga in 2002. The two brought more than 20 years in restaurant experience together at the time they opened the business. Pancake had previously opened the original Jacobi's. Uberuaga had worked in San Francisco and Seattle before moving to Walla Walla in 2000 to serve as the Whitehouse-Crawford's manager when that restaurant opened.

One change in the operation was evident earlier this year when Uberuaga accepted a position at Pepper Bridge Winery. According to an announcement on CreekTown's Facebook page in February, Uberuaga was expected to continue as part owner of the restaurant and continue to have a presence as his new schedule allowed.

Still, the closure was a surprise to many close to the operation, including former executive chef Michael Kline, who learned of the news from a former colleague early this morning via text message.

"CreekTown was a special place for me," Kline said. "It was my first opportunity as an executive chef to stretch my legs a bit."

Kline, who continued as executive chef at the restaurant for several months after venturing on his own to open Walla Walla Bread Co. in 2009, said the transition may be reflective of challenges in the market for restaurateurs.

A packed dining room and reservation book may not be true indicators of the health of an establishment, he said.

"It's all about what's going on behind the scene: labor, overhead, food costs," Kline said.

He said he supplies bread to about 75 percent of the restaurants in town and hears that business is not what it's been in the past.

The restaurant brought an Italian flare and a Sonoma-style sensibility to Walla Walla, Kline said. "It's wine country at its best," he said.

The dining room seated about 50 people, but on a warm summer evening the patio was prime real estate for 25 or 30 guests, he said.

"It's that feeling when you go to a special place," he said. "CreekTown will always hold a special place for me."