BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - It's a Baton Rouge favorite for burgers and shakes. What Dearman's owner and manager call a staple and local favorite, the Hill Property manager calls just a name and business.
Now, Dearman's lease at the Bocage location it has been in for the past nearly 60 days has been terminated.
"This can't happen. There's just no way this can happen. I just can't imagine coming here and not having Dearman's here. I just can't imagine it," said Cindy Waters, who owns The Optical Shoppe just a few doors down from the restaurant. "Dearman's has been here for the 33 years that I have been out here. I still remember Mr. Dearman. I was 18 years old and I got all my prescriptions filled here."
In the late 1950's, it opened as the Dearman's Pharmacy. Decades later, the same bar stools where people sat for the famous soda shop, became where people sat for a burger and shake.
"My father comes here every other week, has a cheeseburger, a strawberry malt," said Waters.
The restaurant went up in flames on March 1. The Baton Rouge Fire Department said the exact cause of the fire has not been determined, but it appears to have started in a storage room of the restaurant. On Wednesday, crews were in the restaurant tearing out the ceiling where a heavy smoke smell permeates throughout the diner and a neighboring business.
Dearman's owner David Van Gelder said he signed a lease with the Hill Properties manager Mitch Richardson back in April 2007, which was set to expire in three months on June 30. But in it, there's a clause for destruction of leased premises. Part of it reads, "Landlord may at its election terminate this lease."
Richardson sent a letter to Dearman's four days after the fire that said, "Notice of termination of lease is hereby being given."
"I was pretty shocked. I can't believe in the wake of a tragedy that that's the type of thing that happened to us," said Dearman's manager Casey Evans. "For us to be hit with that, it's just like a kick when you're down, when we're still trying to sort out all the pieces."
"It's a name, it's a business. I don't want to sound callous, but there was a Winn-Dixie. There was an IGA store here," said Richardson. "There have been numerous tenants here. They're business names. That's a part of business."
Richardson: "We cannot put this space back into commerce by June so for me to continue with that or to explore any other options, we elected to terminate the lease. There were issues we had, not with the name Dearman's or the fact that they sold hamburgers, it may have been the way they operated their businesses. They have to be good neighbors. They have to comply with all the rules, regulations."
Kiran: "Were they not?"
Richardson: "There were issues."
Kiran: "Can you elaborate on that?"
Richardson: "No, this is a business decision and it's one we've made and we're going forward."
"That's false," said Evans.
Evans said Richardson sent them a letter last October letting them know their lease was set to expire in June. He said in December, Hill Properties owner and Richardson went to eat in the restaurant.
"In December, [Richardson] said, 'Don't worry about it. We're going to get it done,' meaning a new lease, and so that's the last we heard of it until termination," said Evans. "[We're] completely blindsided really."
Neighboring businesses however said they had no problems with Dearman's. Instead, they said their businesses did better because of the foot traffic from the restaurant.
"The times that it was closed, there was a noticeable difference of people not coming into my store," said Waters. "If I had a $1 every time somebody said, 'I had a Dearman's cheeseburger with onions so I apologize.' Every Saturday, you get told that 50 million times and you're like, 'That's okay. I had one too.'"
When Richardson was asked what he told all the Dearman's fans, he said, "I'd say be patient. We're not sure what's going to be the outcome at this point. This is a business decision and it's one we've made and we're going forward."
"It feels like a kick when we're down, but I understand they have a place to run," said Evans.
The Baton Rouge Fire Department said the only recent violation they had against Dearman's was in 2013 where the back door was padlocked, but it was quickly fixed. BRFD said since then, there has been no violation.
"We would be interested in getting a new lease done. The flip side of the coin is we suffer a major catastrophe and our lease is terminated. It's not very hopeful," said Van Gelder in response to if they would consider signing a new lease if offered one at the location they're currently at.