The long-time Uptown Village fixture will close by the end of the year
VANCOUVER — “We have fought hard this year but we just cannot overcome the obstacles that have come our way.”
With those words in a Dec. 26 post on Facebook, Vancouver Pizza Company announced the long-time Uptown Village fixture would be closing after nearly 28 years in business.
“COVID just kind of sealed the deal,” said owner Cliff McMillen in an interview with Clark County Today on Monday.
McMillen, 63, who bought the business in 2000 along with his wife Karen, 65, said there have been other struggles recently, including the death of a long-time employee 14 months ago, and a dispute with a neighboring business over parking.
“We were having people that were driving by and saying they would come back again next time,” he said. “And just too many of those added up.”
In 2006, a fire caused by the spontaneous combustion of some towels destroyed the business, but they rebuilt and reopened.
Four years ago they even expanded, adding more dine-in space for the location on Main Street, just south of East 4th Plain Blvd.
Last March, as the COVID-19 pandemic spread in Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee issued an order closing dine-in service at restaurants across the state. McMillen says they worked hard to comply, and tried to adjust their business model to cope.
“We just found out that we couldn’t do it and still be viable,” McMillen said. “Our labor costs went up substantially, plus it was working our staff to death.”
Following some frustration, the business was able to secure a Payroll Protection Loan from the federal CARES Act funding, but it wasn’t enough to keep them afloat.
McMillen says their dine-in service had only been back open for a few days when Inslee’s latest order shut it down again.
“We just decided to go ahead and try to go forth and hope that it would end sooner,” he says of the pandemic. “And, certainly, it appears that it’s not going to end soon enough.”
The decision to close permanently was reached around a month ago, McMillen said, but they had held out hope until recently that they might be able to pull through.
McMillen says the plan is to close Dec. 31, or as soon as the food runs out, whichever comes first.
Since announcing their plan to close, he says the outpouring of support from the community has been “fantastic.”
“We have always thought we had a really good, loyal customer base,” says McMillen, “and they have certainly proved that here in the past few days.”
On Monday, the business’ Facebook page said they were closing their online ordering due to high demand, and warning customers to expect a two-hour wait when placing their order.
While that’s a good feeling on the one hand, it’s also bittersweet, because it underlines what the McMillens are losing.
Both of the couple’s now-adult children grew up in the family business, often making friends of the regular customers who came through the door.
“It has been a privilege,” says Cliff. “We didn’t realize when we bought the store … really what we were getting into, and how well supported we would be by the people of Vancouver.”
Most difficult of all, says McMillen, will be saying goodbye to the dozen employees currently working at Vancouver Pizza, which he calls “one of the best staffs that we’ve ever had in the store.”
“You can’t do it without good staff, and these people have been fantastic,” he says.
McMillen says he and Karen aren’t exactly sure what comes next. Neither feels ready to retire, but they are hoping to be able to spend more time with their young grandchildren.
“That’s certainly a priority for us is to focus on them,” he says. “You know, now that they’re here, and we can enjoy them.”
McMillen says he expects he’ll soon be looking for a job, but doesn’t anticipate starting another business from the ground up at this stage of life.
And, while it won’t come soon enough to save Vancouver Pizza Company, McMillen says he hopes the pandemic finally winds down and other businesses like his own can be spared.
“I’m certainly hopeful from the standpoint that, not that it would help us, but that the political situation, and the things that we’re experiencing now, you know, the political games that have been played for the last several months, can right themselves and people can understand what is being done to the small business community of the nation.”