A popular restaurant in Spanish Springs has unexpectedly closed its doors for good amid a tumultuous time for The Villages original town square.
TooJay’s Deli, which has been a staple in Spanish Springs Town Square for more than 15 years, shut down Thursday with no warning. Area residents – many of whom had been regular customers at the restaurant for quite some time – were shocked and angered to learn of the sudden closure. The eatery’s employees – many of whom had worked there for years and formed tight bonds with their regular customers – also reportedly were stunned, with some possibly arriving for work Thursday morning unaware of the closure.
A sign on the door of the former eatery told surprised customers that the location was closed permanently and they should visit TooJay’s website with questions. It also encouraged customers to visit the company’s other locations in Lake Sumter Landing or Brownwood – a long and cumbersome golf cart ride for residents who live in the Historic Side of the community and other Villages surrounding the Spanish Springs eatery.
An employee at the Lake Sumter Landing TooJay’s on Thursday morning was assuring customers that her restaurant “is open every day.” When asked about the closure at Spanish Springs, she promised that the eateries in Lake Sumter and Brownwood would still be open for business.
A TooJay’s spokesperson on Thursday morning blamed the closure on the COVID-19 pandemic and said it was a “very difficult decision” to shut down the eatery.
“The extraordinary challenges presented by the COVID-19, including government-mandated restrictions and reluctance among consumers to dine out, continue to create a difficult financial impact,” said Robin Y. Bayless, TooJay’s vice president of marketing. “We thank our guests for their support during this time and hope to serve them soon in Brownwood and Lake Sumter Landing.”
No other information about the sudden shutdown was posted on the company’s website but the location at 990 Del Mar Drive no longer appeared on the company’s website when searching for restaurants in the 32159 Zip Code. All mentions of the Spanish Springs location also had been removed from the company’s social media accounts and Google listings by Thursday morning, which indicates the West Palm Beach-based chain likely had been planning the closure for several weeks.
The shutdown follows the chain’s bankruptcy filing in April amid the COVID-19 crisis. The company’s CEO made it clear that the Chapter 11 filing, which came on the same day that Gov. Ron DeSantis greenlighted restaurants to start reopening, was due to the Coronavirus outbreak.
The closure also follows news that The Villages is hoping to inundate Spanish Springs Town Square with apartments in the near future. The Villages Developer has cited a lack of commercial demand in Spanish Springs as the reason for wanting to convert business-oriented square footage to apartments. The Lady Lake Planning and Zoning Board will hear the Developer’s proposal on Monday, Sept. 14, to add “multi-family” zoning as an allowable use in the entire downtown area.
The Developer already had announced plans to convert the shuttered and beloved Katie Belle’s restaurant into apartments, as well as the nearby former site of the Hacienda Hills Country Club. The latest proposal now indicates that second-story space at Spanish Springs Town Square buildings will house apartments – a fact that has left many Villagers upset about the questionable future of their beloved town square.
One of those concerned residents is Karla Coley, who has lived in the Village of Silver Lake for about four years. She was supposed to meet several friends Thursday morning at TooJay’s for brunch and expressed shock at the closure and concern about the planned apartments and how that would affect parking across Spanish Springs.
TooJay’s closure also raises questions about the future of other eateries in Spanish Springs, which likely has seen a marked decrease in foot traffic since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the suspension of entertainment at all three town squares in March. The Rialto Theatre has been shuttered for months for renovations and the Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center remains closed.
On Thursday, it remained unclear what would happen to the building that housed TooJay’s in Spanish Springs. That location once was home to a highly popular open-air fruit market that was operated by former Florida Rep. Hugh Gibson’s wife, Evelyn. The building was constructed specifically for TooJay’s, which was one of the first chain restaurants to take a chance on the Spanish Springs downtown area. Thursday in many ways marked the end of an era, not only for the restaurant but for the many Villagers and other area residents who supported it and formed strong bonds with the eatery’s employees for many years.