Last Order Up: Save Saguache’s 4th Street Diner
By Kathy Bedell © Saguache Today
“Order Up,” sounds the bell from the kitchen of the 4th Street Diner & Bakery in downtown Saguache, followed up quickly by “a little help, please” as owners face a permanent CLOSED sign if the $12,500 tax bill isn’t settled by sundown tonight, May 3.
“He said he’d be coming up with a locksmith tomorrow (May 4) to seize the property if I can’t come up with the money,” explained diner owner Esther Mae Last describing her last conversation with Colorado sales tax-man Mike Weaver.
At times, the story reads like the script from a Broadway play about how some good town folks are “gonna lose the farm if they don’t pay their taxes,” but the truth of the matter is, in a small rural town like Saguache, closing down the beloved local eatery goes far beyond the farm, to the ranchers that provide the local meat for the menu, to the folks that gather daily to exchange good news over a hot cup of coffee, and perhaps most importantly, to 9 full and part time workers currently employed at the 4th Street Diner.
Last week, the situation bumped up to an urgent status as Last received another call from the Colorado Department of Revenue finally playing the “pay-up or else” card. It didn’t take long for the word to hit the street and right behind that, came the online frenzy ,as social media feeds helped spread the news about the beloved eatery’s looming lock-up.
In her own words, Ester explained on the Go Fund Me crowd source-finding website: This is really hard for me to do. To ask you for money or ask you guys to help me, but it is the only way I’m going to be able to save the diner. Whether you are able to help or not, I thank you, and hope that you do, please pass it on. Thank you, Esther and family.
As of today the account was still $6,000 from its goal of $12,500. The back story on the cash flow echoes similar situations faced by many small business owners: I had a dream and let someone else handle the money. Or as captured in Last’s own words: This is also my first business, and I started off without much experience in managing a business. The diner’s bookkeeper was not handling money correctly, and we fell behind. I should have been overseeing that as I realize now.
If you are interested in helping save the 4th Street Diner with a financial contribution, readers may do so at the established Go Fund Me page or at Aventa Bank in downtown Saguache by contributing to the Sales Tax account for the 4th Street Diner.
Easter Mae Last started the 4th Street Diner in July 2010.
“It was started as merely an idea that had for many years,” explained Last. “Eventually my dream came true, and I was able to buy a building in Saguache in hopes to start the 4th Street Diner.”
Since then, the downtown restaurant has become a central hub, the gathering place for ranchers to talk about the weather over a hot cup of coffee or for families to celebrate a special occasion. For travelers passing through the San Luis Valley, those smart or lucky enough to make the turn off Highway 285 experience that sensation of stepping back in time, a return to Mayberry. The name Ester Mae alone brings the promise of good, home cooking and there’s no doubt that it’s the food that keeps folks coming back.
The menu offers a lot and its all fresh, made from scratch. It’s the meat from nearby ranchers, the greens and vegetables from local farmers and the love put into every homemade pie. It’s the healthy home-style portions served with a friendly smile that seem only to be found in small, rural communities.
But for anyone who’s ever struck out and started their own business, the challenges of keeping the doors open come fast, and stick around far too long. It was at the end of last year that Last began to feel the struggle of entrepreneurship set in.
“It’s tough during the winters, we can hardly meet our monthly bills, much less put aside what we need to pay in taxes,” explained Last. Like most small town businesses, the tide of tourism can have a strong impact on the bottom line. Summertime is the busy season in this rural, agricultural community that has seen a resurgence of sorts in its downtown business district in recent years. Most would attribute that in part to Ester’s dream. The 4th Street Diner established the anchor to others investing in the area, creating a stronger arts community, a thrift store, a food store and most importantly a place for folks to gather with their neighbors and friends.
But by the end of last year, the day to day burdens of being the chief baker, bread maker, and money taker were starting to stack up, along with a growing sales tax bill.
“I put the diner up for sale,” said Last. “The bank wouldn’t loan me any more money and with winter ahead, it seemed like the only thing to do.” And while the restaurant is still formerly on the market, Last remains committed to her dream, if the debt can be paid. Otherwise, she adds laughingly, maybe someone will buy it and I can come and work for them.
Which brings the story to today, the day that could very well be the last one the 4th Street Diner & Bakery is open. So what will the closing scene be for this small town play? A last supper of local beef and greens, topped off with a big hunk of homemade pie? Or perhaps a rally cry of triumph by dawn’s early light, demonstrating that the entrepreneurial dream is not dead in rural America, especially not in Saguache Today!
The 4th Street Diner & Bakery is located at 411 4th Street Saguache, CO 81149. (719) 655-6411