Hungry residents and workers in the Laurel area have one fewer popular lunch option, with the closing of one of Prince George’s County’s two California Tortilla restaurants.
Retail Properties of America, part of the Inland Group in Spokane Valley, Wash., officially shuttered the Mexican fast-food eatery at Centre at Laurel on Baltimore Avenue on Tuesday. The restaurant had been closed since June 15 after rent issues developed between Real Properties and franchise owner Pavan Bhatia.
At the time of its closing, the restaurant had 14 employees, Bhatia said.
Five months before closing, the restaurant — part of a chain with headquarters in Rockville — had been seeing 8 percent growth, he said. It was its first upturn in five years.
“We were able to survive the hardest times of the recession,” Bhatia said. “Then this happens, just as things were finally started to look up.”
Bhatia, who also owns a Baltimore location with the same chain, said he purchased the store in 2005, hoping to tap the lunch market in the surrounding business community. As the Great Recession deepened from 2007 to 2009, that market shrank as businesses closed or laid off workers.
“We were still packed for lunch all the time,” Bhatia said. “But the rent was too high. We kept falling behind. Revenues weren’t adding up to the expense.”
Retail Properties of America did not respond to a request for comment.
The closing doesn’t leave Mexican food aficionados in the Laurel area bereft of choices, however. For example, there’s a Chipotle Mexican Grill not far away on Baltimore Avenue.
Bhatia’s situation is not uncommon among California Tortilla franchisees, said Stacey Kane, a company spokeswoman.
“There are stores that have very high rents but most stores are able to thrive despite those costs,” Kane wrote in an email to The Gazette. “Overall, California Tortilla has had positive same store sales for over 28 months.”
Bhatia said he was particularly displeased at not having the opportunity to sell his location to someone else. He hired locally, especially teenagers, and often did catering and fundraising for nearby schools.
While he would like to find another Laurel location, banks are still reluctant lenders, Bhatia said.
Prince George’s has one other California Tortilla location, in Bowie.
“We at California Tortilla hope to open a new Laurel location as we value the Laurel community, the customers that supported the store and the employees that have lost their jobs,” Kane said.
California Tortilla has 12 stores in Maryland.