The piano player at Furr’s Cafeteria is long gone. America’s buffet restaurants might soon be a memory, too.
Furr’s parent company, Fresh Acquisitions LLC, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
The Furr’s at 522 W. Cordova Road in Santa Fe has been closed for months. When spring blew into town, a menu for Thanksgiving was still taped on the restaurant’s door.
Before the bankruptcy filing, calls to Santa Fe’s dormant Furr’s were answered by a strange recording that said everyone was busy helping other customers. The phone, like the restaurant, no longer is in service.
Barring a comeback in bankruptcy court, a New Mexico success story is coming to an end.
Entrepreneur Roy Furr opened his first Furr’s Cafeteria in 1946 in Hobbs. Furr died in 1975 at age 70. By then, 43 cafeterias in six states carried his name.
A brief obituary on Furr even made the newspapers in New York City. In addition to Furr’s cafeterias, the corporation he chaired operated supermarkets and a fruit-packing business, and it maintained interests in oil and real estate.
Roy Furr had believed his restaurant chain would grow if it was distinctive.
Many Furr’s cafeterias featured wood-burning fireplaces. Piano players or organists provided music to go along with chopped steak, baked cod, fried chicken, salads, vegetables and pies ranging from chocolate to strawberry.
It worked, at least for a while. Roy Furr’s restaurants were white-hot properties when he died.
Kmart in 1980 paid $70 million to acquire the Furr’s chain. It had 76 restaurants then, mostly in the Southwest, and it was still growing.
Furr’s was adding a half-dozen restaurants a year. Kmart, then the second-largest retailer behind Sears, expected to increase Furr’s expansion by about 15 cafeterias annually.
But nothing changes faster than the weather or a business dependent on customers with discretionary income.
Furr’s operated two cafeterias in my hometown in Colorado. A pianist in coat and tie would play soothing background music as highly paid steelworkers and their families filled the tables.
But Big Steel was sliding by the time Kmart acquired Furr’s cafeterias. In my town during the early 1980s, the number of steelworkers declined from 6,000 to 2,200.
Wages dropped for those who survived the purge, and unemployment jumped to 11 percent. At once, Furr’s and every other restaurant had fewer customers.
The piano man went away. So did Kmart’s plans for an aggressive expansion of Furr’s cafeterias.
Kmart sold the Furr’s chain in 1987. Tastes began to change in the midst of country’s loss of blue-collar jobs.
Furr’s opened a cafeteria in Davenport, Iowa, in 1987 but closed it three months later. The menu didn’t appeal to the Midwesterners.
Though extreme, the quick closure in Iowa signaled that the chain had many weak links.
Furr’s filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2003. Restaurant closures became far more common than grand openings.
Furr’s had shut down its cafeteria in DeVargas Center in 2000. All the Colorado locations were closed by 2017.
When the pandemic began in 2020, Furr’s had shrunk to 16 locations in four states. Most of its cafeterias were in Texas and New Mexico.
Like all dine-in restaurants, the Furr’s in Santa Fe closed temporarily as state government wrestled with how to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Managers told some 40 Furr’s employees they would not receive their last paycheck.
The company couldn’t afford to pay what it owed, workers were told.
Maria Rios, who made minimum wage working on the serving line at Furr’s, organized fellow workers to challenge the company. They used the National Labor Relations Act to obtain the money Furr’s owed them. All 40 employees received their pay.
Furr’s brought everyone back when it reopened its Santa Fe location in June. But the cafeteria closed again in the fall after a spike in coronavirus infections.
In its new bankruptcy filing in the northern district of Texas, the parent company of Furr’s estimated it has assets of
$1 million to $10 million. The company pegged its liabilities at
$10 million to $50 million.
I asked Jason Brookner, an attorney representing the company, if any of Furr’s cafeterias might reopen.
“We have no comment other than to refer you to statements made in our publicly filed pleadings,” Brookner wrote in an email.
The bankruptcy documents that Fresh Acquisitions LLC filed list the pandemic as the reason the restaurants could not operate profitably.
Roy Furr’s chain would have turned 75 this year.
If this is it, if Furr’s is down forever, a slice of Americana will go with it.