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Bye bye, birdie

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The first Red Robin restaurant, located near the University Bridge, will close March 21.

In a decision that will end more than 40 years of service, Red Robin’s original restaurant in Eastlake will close its doors March 21.

The company chose not to renew the building’s lease, set to expire April 3.

“I’m kind of surprised … [this location is] so insanely busy,” senior Jennifer Brown said of the company’s decision while waiting to be seated at the restaurant Tuesday night. The small dining room was filled to its 129-person capacity that evening.

Known as the “Dirty Bird” by employees, the Eastlake location has been a fixture in the area since the 1940s, when it was known as Sam’s Tavern. Gerry Kingen, the chain’s founder, purchased the business in 1969 and renamed it Red Robin. In 1973. he remodeled the building and began serving the restaurant’s now-well-known burgers and bottomless fries.

“It was not irregular to be there and, all of a sudden, a group of 30 students would walk in,” senior and former employee Brittany Becker said.

According to the company’s announcement Monday, the decision to close was “driven by the need for considerable investment to maintain the building” and efficiently operate the facility. In other words, the building had become too expensive to overhaul.

“We’re in need of some upgrades … just to make [the facility] more efficient and comfortable,” said general manager Jessi Klein. “We’re looking for bigger space.”

Becker, an employee from 2007 to 2009, described the building as in dire need of renovations.

“Ever since I was there, there have always been building-maintenance issues … I can’t remember a time where everything worked properly,” Becker said. “The building was falling apart … They’ve updated it, but they’ve never done an overhaul.”

Becker said that there had been talk of closing the restaurant as far back as she can remember.

All staff currently working at Red Robin will be able to retain their jobs and transfer to other Red Robin locations, according to the company’s press release.

“We have 50 employees … I’d say 80 percent of my staff are [UW] students,” Klein said.

Once the restaurant has closed and employees have transferred, the company will search for a new U-District location, she said.

But if Keith Leeman has anything to say about it, the closing might not be a done deal.

Leeman, a five-year Seattle resident, took action as soon as he heard of the company’s decision, creating a Facebook group titled “Don’t close the ORIGINAL Red Robin Eastlake” on Tuesday. As of press time, the group has attracted more than 3,400 members, mostly from the Seattle area, including a number of UW students.

“The growth of the group … has surprised me,” Leeman said, calling it “a testament to … the deep affection that people have for the Eastlake Red Robin.”

Leeman said that he has spoken both with Red Robin corporate representatives and with Kingen but would not provide details of the conversations.

“Unfortunately, there isn’t much news to share yet,” he said. “Red Robin has not given me any indication that the company might reconsider its decision, but I do know that they are watching the developments [on the Web site] closely.”

Reach contributing writer Tiffany Vu at development@dailyuw.com.

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