OAKHURST — The Sweetwater Steakhouse has served up its last steak. The restaurant, in operation for fifteen years, quietly closed its doors last month.
Owned and operated by David DeSanders since 2005, the restaurant was known for its prime cuts of grilled steaks and chops, “raw” seafood bar and “loaded” baked potatoes.
But business at the steakhouse apparently went from sizzling to sour in the last few years, according to Larry Williams, whose family trust, Red Hawk Holding LLC, now owns the property.
“Between the drought, fires and lack of tourism, David really struggled to stay afloat,” Williams says.
William’s mother, Hazel Donaldson, originally sold DeSanders the property, carrying the financing as part of the deal, according to Williams.
“After David defaulted on the note and filed for bankruptcy, our family was forced to take the property back.”
A realtor from Visalia, Williams has been working on renovations to the property since shortly after the restaurant closed and is hoping to find a buyer for the 12,000-square-foot, three story building off Highway 41.
“We’d like to sell it but if push comes to shove, we’re going to open the restaurant and bar back up and operate it ourselves.”
Williams is replacing the restaurant’s sprawling outdoor deck and also has plans to put in more windows and move the bar to an area overlooking the deck and mountainside behind the restaurant.
In addition to making improvements to the 5,000-square-foot restaurant and bar space, Williams is also updating the six small, one-room rental units on the building’s second floor.
“Each [of the units] has its own bathroom and my goal right now is to try to fix the rooms up and convert them to Airbnbs,” he explains.
Williams has received one recent inquiry from a potential tenant interested in turning the ground-level space below the restaurant “into a little brewery” but the bankruptcy filing has “tied up” the property’s liquor license, he said.
“It’s our understanding that the liquor license is supposed to go with the building. But David’s lawyers have told him not to sign anything so I’m not sure when that issue is going to be resolved.”
Williams says that until the issues with the liquor license are resolved, the restaurant and bar will remain closed.
“Realistically, I don’t think the place can be open again any sooner than this fall.”
When it does open, the restaurant will have a new name, which Williams says has yet to be determined if his family winds up being the operator.
“If we end up running the place, we won’t have a ‘fat’ menu when we reopen,” he speculates. “We’ll probably just focus on a few good meals and open up the bar and then try to expand the menu as we get our feet under us.”
Williams notes that he has never managed a restaurant and jokes that his “bartending experience” is limited to “knowing how to order a drink.”
A veteran realtor at Century 21 Jordan-Link Realty in Visalia, Williams plans to market the property himself once the renovations are “a little further along.”
“This place has been in need of repair for a long time. We’re dealing with a lot of deferred maintenance issues. We just put a new walkway in out front and are going to repaint the entire building. The walls were beat to death. There’s a lot of work. It’s going to take a while to get it all done.”
For the most part, Williams is doing the repairs and renovation himself with the help of a relative.
“I’m pretty busy so I have to come up here on the weekends, which is not the fastest way to get this done. But you gotta do what you gotta do.”
The Sweetwater Steakhouse was in the news in 2014 after the driver of a Mercedes crashed into the building and ended up in the restaurant’s kitchen, forcing the business to close for several months while repairs were made.
Last week while Williams was working on the property, he said a busload of tourists from Asia pulled into the parking lot and told him that they had “pre-ordered” 35 steak dinners.
“I offered to go out and get some meat and cook it up for them myself,” Williams said. “I feel terrible having to turn that kind of business away.”