Casona, the little Cuban restaurant that has survived on the edge of the Collingswood downtown, but has never been far from its heart, closed its doors for good today.
Owner-operator Mark Infantado chalked up the bad news to mounting state and federal tax debts that ultimately hamstrung his operating costs, making his overhead unsustainable.
He said that the business ran out of road with the IRS on Wednesday, and with New Jersey back in September.
An eleventh-hour appeal to creditors came up painfully short on Thursday afternoon, and Infantado said other avenues of settling his bills—including an appeal to the Food Network’s Restaurant Impossible—had all run dry.
The restaurant employs 12 people.
Injuries, debt, and bad luck
Casona opened in 2006, bolstered by Infantado’s construction business, Temperature by Design, which the Cinnaminson resident said was a $3 million company in 2008.
Yet a string of tragedies both personal and professional forced him to liquidate those assets, digging a hole out of which the restaurant could never seem to climb.
In the early years, Infantado said he was a mostly silent partner while his best friend, Lawrence Grillo, operated the restaurant. But by 2009, Casona had turned over 70 employees, and Infantado said he was concerned for its future under Grillo's management.
By August 2010, Temperature by Design closed, and Infantado was claiming personal bankruptcy. He couldn’t sell off Casona's holding company to pay off his vendors because the mortgage on the restaurant was greater than the value of the building in which it is housed, he said.
Between the four food vendors Infantado took with him into bankruptcy and the state and federal tax debts, he’d added an extra $3,500 a month to his overhead, putting himself $80,000 behind the eight ball.
“And then I fell the first time,” he said. “November 9, 2010, and I was out for six months. Screws put in my ankle.”
Business had slowed
That was two weeks after Infantado’s brother committed suicide, and while he was in the process of liquidating the assets of Temperature By Design.
“When I came back from my first injury in April 2011, there was so much maintenance that needed to be done here that it was unbelievable,” Infantado said.
“Then I started getting back into the restaurant, working with [manager] Denise [Pomarici] doing hosting and parties, and everything was going pretty good, and then in April 2012, I started having problems walking again.”
Infantado went back in for surgery in February 2013, and wasn’t able to return to work until September.
In the six months that he’d lost, Infantado said, weekday business had died off, and even brunch, once a key component of his bottom line, was fading as well. A historically rainy summer drove away some of that seasonal business, “and that set us back to pay our obligations,” Infantado said.
There was also a week that Casona went without power during post-tropical cyclone Sandy—yet still collected donations dropped off for other victims of the storm—but, as Pomarici said, business had been on the decline before the storm, and fell off after, too.
“We closed for lunch for the first time since 2006 just two weeks ago,” Infantado said; “we’re losing money on lunch.”
Infantado said he will likely re-enter the construction business because “that’s what I came from; that’s what I know.”
But he will surely miss the borough and the people of Collingswood.
Casona has always catered to private parties and special events,including the 2012 Collingswood Bike Share beef and beer fundraiser, and the monthly Ladies Night shopping events at Frugal Resale, to name just a few.
“I love the town, I love the people,” Infantado said. “It’s just all the bad luck.”