SAN MATEO — After Glenn Thompson nearly died three years ago following gastrointestinal bypass surgery, the cook and entrepreneur made it his mission to help save lives by revolutionizing southern cooking and making it healthy.
His restaurant, Gator's Neo Soul Cafe, located in downtown San Mateo on South B Street, provided diners with a healthful twist to Southern cuisine, offering crispy sauteed catfish instead of the deep-fried variety and griddled crab cakes rather than the fattier version.
"We focused on trying to bring a healthier approach to the South," said Thompson, 51. "The whole purpose of doing this restaurant was to save lives."
Now the restaurant has closed its doors, shutting down after a little more than two years. The cause of death: the recession, premature expansion and a bitter dispute with his landlords.
"I'm devastated, I'm completely devastated," said Thompson, a San Mateo resident. "I'm completely blown away."
Thompson and his former landlords, Paul and Ladan Nazarian, have widely diverging accounts of what led Gator's to close.
When the economy took a downward spiral, Thompson was in the middle of expanding Gator's into the building adjacent to the restaurant.
Times were tough, with restaurant sales down 38 percent, and he'd taken on a $150,000 loan from his landlords, Thompson said. He was able to pay only the rent, not the loan, and even though Gator's eventually made up the 38 percent sales decrease, it wasn't enough.
"The bottom line is, I closed my restaurant because I couldn't afford to pay the amount my landlords wanted me to pay," said Thompson, adding that he also had to pay 5 percent interest on the loan.
The Nazarians contest his claims, saying Thompson was late on rent after the first five or six months and began missing payments. They said Thompson sent them bad checks when he did make payments.
"I went back and forth with him so many times," Ladan Nazarian said. "It got to the point that for several months there was nothing, he was basically staying there for free for several months."
When the Nazarians sent Thompson the eviction notice, he owed seven months' rent and the loan money, totaling approximately $250,000, according to the Nazarians. Thompson was evicted after he did not respond to Ladan Nazarian's calls to come up with a compromise on payments, the landlords said.
"That's what forced us to give him the three-day notice," she said.
Thompson said he was behind on rent because of the extra fees his landlords imposed.
"They knew how the economy was, but they wouldn't work with me to solve these issues," Thompson said. "Everyone was working with me, except my landlords."
Fans of the restaurant have been dismayed.
Loyal customer Jack Hefferman, of San Mateo, remembered Gator's as "one of the finest (restaurants) that I know of" and "a tremendous addition to downtown San Mateo." He added he is "absolutely distraught that their restaurant is no longer in business."
But there is some solace for fans who are disappointed that Gator's has closed. Thompson is already scouting a new location for his restaurant, and he is currently focused on the opening of his wife Mary Ann's restaurant, Dolly Marie's, which bills itself as offering "fine southern dining." It is scheduled to open next month at 1602 S. El Camino in San Mateo.
Cooking is in Thompson's blood. He has been preparing food since he was 8, and he began working in a kitchen at the age of 14, when he was hired at an Italian restaurant in San Leandro. He spent 28 years as a chef in various Italian restaurants.
Thompson currently envisions a new downtown San Mateo location for Gator's that also includes a jazz venue that would attract top artists. He is in the middle of negotiations to purchase a building through investments instead of renting again and risking another landlord-tenant dispute, he said.
The menu at the new restaurant would be similar to Gator's, continuing to focus on healthy food, Thompson said.
"I'm going to still focus on southern healthy food, and I'm going to continue to do what I've always set out to do — save lives," he said. "I'm not going to stop."