Paula Deen, shown with her husband at a recent appearance in Albany promoting her new furniture line, and her brother, Bubba Hiers, have closed Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House in Savannah after a 10-year run. (Staff photo: Terry Lewis)
The Savannah Morning News
SAVANNAH — As long-time employees collected severance checks in the parking lot, Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House announced its closing Thursday morning on its website and Facebook page.
“Thank you for 10 great years,” the written comment stated, “Uncle Bubba’s is now closed.”
The Whitemarsh Island restaurant is co-owned by Paula Deen and her younger brother, Earl W. “Bubba” Hiers Jr.
It was at the center of a storm of negative publicity Deen weathered last year after a former Uncle Bubba’s employee filed a lawsuit alleging racial and sexual discrimination. In a deposition, Deen admitted she had used a racial slur 30 years earlier.
The claims and lawsuit were eventually dismissed but not before she lost millions in national endorsements and the Food Network announced it would not renew her contract.
Hiers decided “to close the restaurant in order to explore development options for the waterfront property on which the restaurant is located,” he said in a written statement released through the Key Group Worldwide, a New York-based public relations firm.
The 350-seat, nearly 10,000-square-foot restaurant sits on 2.7 acres. Its most recent tax assessment puts the property value at $1.5 million. Brother & Sister Enterprises LLC acquired it in 2004 for $2 million, tax records indicate.
“At this point, no specific plans have been announced, and a range of uses are under consideration in order realize the highest and best use for the property,” the prepared statement continued. “The closing is effective today, Thursday, April 3, 2014. Employees will be provided with severance based on position and tenure with the restaurant. All effort will be made to find employees comparable employment with other Savannah restaurant organizations.”
A spokesman for the New York firm did not respond to the question of how many people were employed by Uncle Bubba’s.
In Hiers’ deposition in 2013 he testified that he frequently viewed pornography on company-owned sites at work and had a history of cocaine use and alcohol abuse. He admitted taking money from the restaurant in 2010 — allegedly as much as $25,000 to $30,000 a month, a practice Deen eventually discovered. He said his sister was in control of the business but it was never a big moneymaker.
“The company had never shown a lot of profit,” Hiers testified.
The health department last inspected Uncle Bubba’s in February. It received a score of 83 with points deducted for repeated violations of proper hand-washing procedures and improper temperature holding of potentially hazardous foods.
Late Thursday morning a barrier blocked traffic to the former restaurant’s parking lot where a uniformed police officer turned some vehicles away and let others pass.
Savannah-Chatham police patrol cars remained in the area for much of the morning; people gathered near the roadblock declined to speak about the establishment’s closing or why a roadblock with police officers was set up.
Some long-term employees were shocked to discover they no longer had a job and turned to the restaurant’s Facebook page to vent.
“I’ve been water works all a.m.,” wrote one poster who said she’d been employed there for seven years. “I’ve worked there since I was 16. I woke up this a.m. to no job and no forewarning.”
Earlier this year Deen signed a deal with Phoenix-based private investment firm Najafi Cos. worth between $75 million and $100 million. Called Paula Deen Ventures, the partnership will be the umbrella name for Deen’s many brands.
Its first major investment will be Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen, a $20 million, 20,000-square-foot restaurant and retail operation, scheduled to open in late summer in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., home of the Dollywood theme park.
A statement released by Najafi in February when the partnership was announced praised Deen’s The Lady & Sons as “one of the country’s most popular regional restaurants.”
It did not mention Uncle Bubba’s.