“A devastating impact:” The coronavirus claims Clarke’s Charcoal Broiler, Mountain View’s oldest operating restaurant

Owner predicts mom-and-pops will struggle to weather the current crisis while chains “can absorb this.”

Clarkes Charcoal Broiler on El Camino Real has been a local standby since 1945. (Image via Clarke’s Facebook)

The family behind Clarke’s Charcoal Broiler in Mountain View has decided to close the 75-year-old restaurant in the wake of a shelter-in-place order that has brought business to a “trickle” amid uncertainty about the ability of local, independent restaurants to bounce back from the coronavirus.

Clarke’s, which opened in 1945 at 615 W. El Camino Real, is believed to be Mountain View’s oldest operating restaurant. It will serve its last Clarkesburgers today, March 31.

Clarke’s Charcoal Broiler first opened in Mountain View in 1945. (Photo courtesy Steve Blach)

Clarke’s has weathered extreme change and economic crises over the last seven decades, but the coronavirus feels different, said Steve Blach, whose parents Jim and Liz bought the business in 1975.

“The COVID-19 virus and subsequent shelter in-place and the probability of it exceeding past another 30 days has had a devastating impact on operations,” Blach said. “Being a small, independently owned and operated restaurant where resources are limited, the immensely difficult decision to cease operations broke our hearts, but not our spirits.”

Like many restaurants, Clarke’s shifted to takeout after the Bay Area’s first shelter-in-place order two weeks ago. On Tuesday, public health officials extended the order through May 3, with additional restrictions for essential businesses that are still operating, including restaurants and grocery stores, to post a “social distancing” plan detailing the measures they are taking to ensure compliance.

“It cost a significant amount of money every day” to stay open for takeout, Blach said. “You have rent. You have utilities. You have taxes. You have health care costs. It all contributes. You have to sell a lot of hamburgers — a lot of hamburgers.”

Liz Blach, now 92 years old, took over Clarke’s with her husband Jim in 1975. (Image via Clarke’s Facebook)

Blach, his siblings and his 92-year-old mother met recently to discuss the possibility of closing Clarke’s. Given the uncertainty around how long the shelter-at-home order will last and the time and resources it would take to get the business back to normal, they “decided to be proactive,” he said.

“It could be another 18 months until we get back to where we were prior to the virus,” he said. “What do you do? You lay off people. You cut hours. You raise prices. And then you’re going to be out of business anyway,” Blach said. “It’s a no-win situation.”

He predicted that more mom-and-pop restaurants, fighting to survive on takeout and delivery amid the shutdown, will follow in Clarke’s footsteps while deep-pocketed chains like McDonald’s or Burger King “can absorb this.”

Beth Blach, Steve’s older sister, was an 18-year-old working at Clarke’s when her father, a real estate broker, bought the business. At the time, it was a 20-seat operation with only four burgers on the menu, he recalled. The 11 Blach children grew up at the restaurant, working there through their teenage years.

In 1983, the family upgraded the kitchen, dining room and parking lot, growing the restaurant’s capacity to over 120 seats. Over the years, they added beer, wine and new dishes to the straightforward menu, from ribs and patty melts to a teriyaki burger with grilled pineapple inspired by a trip the Blach patriarch and matriarch took to Hawaii (and later, veggie and turkey burgers).

The Blach family announced its plans to close Clarke’s this past weekend via Facebook. (Image via Clarke’s Facebook)

A Facebook post announcing the closure prompted an outpouring of comments from loyal customers. Blach said he watched a longtime, elderly customer come in last weekend for the same thing he’s ordered for 40 years: a Clarkesburger, cooked over charcoal, and fries.

“There are a lot of generations that grew up with Clarke’s. There’s a lot of sadness in those comments,” Blach said. “Closing Clarke’s is a big deal.”

Clarke’s will provide its 13 employees, including a woman who has worked there for 30 years, with severance.

“Not being able to serve our customers any longer is going to leave a void in our lives that is hard to fathom,” Blach said.

Long live the Clarkesburger!!! (Image via Clarke’s Facebook)

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Elena Kadvany

A writer with a passion for investigative reporting, telling untold stories and public-service journalism, I have built my career covering education and restaurants in the Bay Area. My blog and biweekly newsletter, Peninsula Foodist, is the go-to source for restaurant news in Silicon Valley. My work has been published in The Guardian, Eater, Bon Appetit’s Healthyish, SF Weekly and The Six Fifty.

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