*Updated with fresh quotes from Laguna Beach Planning Commission members Anne Johnson and Norm Grossman*
Laguna Beach Planning Commission members Norm Grossman and Anne Johnson, both of whom are cited below by Royal Hawaiian owner Doug Cole as being partially responsible for his decision to close his restaurant/nightspot, have each just spoken seperately to Laguna Beach Patch.
"It's too bad, because we always hate to lose a business," Johnson tells Laguna Beach Patch. "I did not know they were closing. I had heard they having financial problems. I'm sorry to hear they couldn't make it."
Regarding the noise complaints, Johnson says "we always have problems when residential and commercial areas are contiguous to each other. We had them with the Pottery Place, Mozambique, and Mosun when they first opened, so I was reluctant to let (Royal Hawaiian) have amplified music. They claimed it was just one neighbor who complained, but we had several complaints from the property manager and a couple of tenants. We had complaints from as far away as up the hill and across the street. We have noise ordinances in the city and it’s the Planning Commission’s job to enforce the rules. I’m surprised they didn’t appeal to the city council, because the council has the power to overrule any of our decisions. But they never did that."
“It’s sad to see any business close,” Grossman says. “But I think we make every effort to keep businesses in the city going.”
Grossman denied to Patch that he personally knows any of the people who complained about Royal Hawaiian’s noise levels.
“(Royal Hawaiian) requested the ability to do live music, and we gave it to them, with some conditions. We planned a six-month review, and during that time, we got a report they were in violation of their conditional use permit. What was critical was that it was a legitimate complaint, so we had to put them on notice.”
Grossman agrees with Royal Hawaiian owner Doug Cole's claim that one person did most of the complaining, but he says that the commission also heard from a nearby apartment manager who said that his tenants had complained to him, but were too afraid to come forward and file formal complaints with the city.
A jovial crowd of friends and regulars gathered around the bar Sunday night at the Royal Hawaiian, Laguna Beach’s venerable Coast Highway institution since 1947.
But the smiles were deceptive, despite the free beer and flowing . Instead, this was more like a wake—after 65 years, the Royal Hawaiian was closing for good. It served its last meal to paying customers the previous night.
Doug Cole, who bought the restaurant in 2006 from the children of the original owner and put several hundred thousand dollars worth of renovations into the business, blames his decision to shut down the Royal Hawaiian primarily on the Laguna Beach city planning commission, which restricted his live music permit. Bands that used to be able to play until 1 a.m. on busy Friday and Saturday nights were being forced to pull the plug at 11 p.m., which cost Cole the alcohol-and-good-time-loving crowds he needed to stay in business.
“I was losing at least $25,000 a month, and $15,000 of that was because of that one hour between 11 and 12 on Friday and Saturday,” Cole told Laguna Beach Patch Sunday. “I probably could have stayed open if I had that.”
“The loss of revenue hurt us beyond belief,” said General Manager Colleen Oyler. “The rent is very high, and that was a factor as well. The landlord would not budge on the rent.”
Oyler was taking the loss of the Royal Hawaiian pretty hard, her eyes welling up when asked to contemplate her next move.
“I’m OK, I’m good. I’ve got two kids—one going to college—but I always land on my feet. I’m a positive person.”
“The planning commission put me on probation because one person complained about noise,” said Cole. “The trouble is, she personally knows several of the people on the planning commission, so her complaint meant more than anything else. There's lots of cronyism."
Asked to cite who these commission members are, Cole mentions Norm Grossman and Anne Johnson. Laguna Beach Patch attempted to contact Grossman and Johnson via phone and email Sunday night for comment, but they have yet to respond.
“They’re going to say we were violating the noise levels, but we were not,” Cole says. “This business shouldn’t have even needed the music permit. It should have been grandfathered in, because there was live music here before I ever bought it. And there was no evidence there was a sound problem. Just because someone complains to the police doesn’t mean there’s a violation, but they were treating it as if there was. You can’t fix a problem that doesn’t exist.”
Fans of the Royal Hawaiian were throwing back one last round Sunday, and sharing some favorite memories.
“Part of me died when I heard the news it was closing,” said Jon Blanciak. “It’s like Cheers, everybody knows your name, and they treat you like family. There’s a legacy that’s being left behind. Part of Laguna is being taken out.”
Blanciak also took issue with the restaurant’s alleged noise violations.
“I live down the street and I walk here. I get within half a block, and you can’t hear anything. Maybe if the people complaining came in and had a drink, they wouldn’t have anything to complain about.”
Derek Gray, a Royal regular since 1996 who was “shocked and dismayed” upon hearing of the closure, says he’ll always remember the, ummm … interesting effect of the Lapu Lapu.
“One of my neighbors, this beautiful brunette, she and I walked in to the bar, we’re having Lapus, then I began licking her toes. What happened after that I can’t say, but it was a beautiful evening in Lapu Lapu land.”
Ronald Kaufman has been coming to the Hawaiian since 1960, a peak year in tiki bar culture.
“It’s a major loss, and leaves a big empty hole in Laguna Beach restaurant history. I’m going to miss this place, it has more atmosphere than most restaurants do.”
As the Royal Hawaiian's final night stretched on and the crowd thinned, a reflective Cole was asked what he plans to do next.
"Recover," he said. "And find a job, now that I've lost almost everything I own."