Mark Paradise made the tough decision to close Sunroom Café on State Street, even though, at age 67, he said, he had a least two more good years to give it.
That was also the number of years he had left on his lease at the sunny, second-floor restaurant at 638 State St., which routinely had customers lined up down the stairs waiting on weekends.
Paradise just marked his 25th year of ownership, and said his decision was also based on the uncertainties of the pandemic and the unknowns about being able to reopen safely. He said he also worried about retaining skilled employees in a limited work capacity. “I guess there were too many variables,” he said.
He enjoyed the job, he said. “Going to the café each morning, interacting with all of the employees and greeting customers, I didn’t want those feelings to change under the new reality of COVID-19.”
Paradise said being on the second floor made doing business during the pandemic difficult, since he couldn’t offer outdoor dining. Before the pandemic, Sunroom — which served breakfast, lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch — could seat about 65 people inside. Complying with COVID restrictions would be impossible because the tables were squeezed too close together to make distancing realistic, he said.
“We had a good business, and it was a lot of fun working and being down there and meeting all the students and faculty and staff,” Paradise said. “We had regular customers that I saw five times a week and it’s sad that it was all sort of taken away.”
At the same time, Paradise said he didn’t want to risk getting sick.
When he closed because of the virus in mid-March, he remembers telling one of his managers they’d be closed for a month or two. Once restaurants were allowed to reopen at reduced capacities, he said he couldn’t figure out a way to do it safely with the restaurant being able to “pay for itself.”
He continued to pay some of his 25 part- and full-time employees with the idea that they’d return when Sunroom reopened. Paradise said he was happy when a few of them found other jobs right away.
“Then, it started getting longer and longer, and you just think, ‘OK, well, what are we going to do?’ And I didn’t really see a light at the end of the tunnel,” Paradise said.
He could have stuck it out and tried to think of a way to open for UW-Madison’s second semester, but he didn’t know if the virus would be under control. “There were just too many question marks,” he said.
Paradise said his landlord was helpful in negotiating out of the lease, but he regrets not being able to continue until he could sell to someone younger “with new ideas and a little bit more energy than I have right now.”
For Sunroom to break even, Paradise said he’d have to do 50% to 60% of his regular business. “So, 25% capacity wouldn’t really cut it. I actually did my homework and measured out the place,” he said.
Sunroom opened in the early 1970s as Sunprint Café. It was more of a coffeehouse at first, but evolved into a counter-service restaurant.
Paradise managed the State Street Sunprint for 10 years before buying it in 1995 and changing its name to Sunroom.
Over the years, other owners had Sunprints on University Avenue near UW Hospital, on Odana Road and Whitney Way and on the Capitol Square.
Paradise said he’s been thinking of the many hundreds of people who’ve worked at Sunroom in the past quarter-century.
“All these students that we hired over the years. Some would work there for four or five years. Others, a year or two years. We always had such a great staff,” Paradise said. “It just was so much fun every semester to get to know a few new people, and every time I would think to myself, ‘Well, this is the best staff I’ve ever had.’ And I look back and say, ‘You know, these other people are just as good.’ It’s just funny.”
He said he hopes that when employees look back 10, 15 or 20 years later, they think of it fondly.
Paradise said he intends to enjoy his retirement, but can’t help but wish Sunroom had stayed alive.
“A young person going in there could have really done well for him or herself,” he said. “There are so many young restaurant entrepreneurs in Madison and they’re serving wonderful food and they’re doing great things. I hope it continues and maybe someone will want to go into that space.”
“All these students that we hired over the years. Some would work there for four or five years. Others, a year or two years. We always had such a great staff.” Mark Paradise, owner of the Sunroom Cafe
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"All these students that we hired over the years. Some would work there for four or five years. Others, a year or two years. We always had such a great staff."
Mark Paradise, owner of the Sunroom Cafe
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