Three Malibu restaurants shutter within days of one another

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Closures at Nicolas Eatery, Ju Ju Kitchen and Ciel Orange illustrate difficulties of restaurant business

By Barbara Burke

Special to The Malibu Times

Starting a business — any type of business — in Malibu is risky, between the process of obtaining permits from the city — a process that many have described as tortuously labyrinthian — and the significant variances in customer flow from the height of summer tourism season to the lows of the rainy season. Starting a restaurant in Malibu is even trickier as evidenced by the fact that three Malibu restaurants have closed within the space of a week.   

Nicolas Eatery’s post on social media on Nov. 29 stated, “LAST DAY ANNOUNCEMENT We are saddened to inform you that we have to close our beloved restaurant. Nicolas Eatery has been a great venture and allowed us to meet wonderful people. My family and I worked tirelessly to keep the doors open, but the reality and lack of consistent business has created a financial burden we can no longer support.”

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Proprietor Nicolas Fanucci’s post continued stating, “Our last day of service will be March 31st. Stop by if you can, otherwise you can come see us at our location in Woodland Hills called DELUX BISTRO. We are forever thankful and proud to have served the Malibu community and become a neighborhood favorite.”

Within moments of that posting, Malibuites expressed their shock and sadness, with one person summarizing the communal response in a single word: “Devastating.” 

Another posting summed up the current restaurant and general business sector situation: “Malibu really needs to figure out how to keep businesses open!” 

The Fanucci family’s efforts to make Nicolas Eatery a success had weathered through the COVID pandemic and the Woolsey Fire. Lucas, the eldest son, operated a food truck during the pandemic while the family waited for permits and the venue’s construction to finish. His doing so and the consistently popular cuisine that the venue served after it opened, as well as the family’s hands-on participation in warmly welcoming customers to the restaurant, garnered the respect and gratitude of guests from the local community as well as visitors, according to several social media postings following the closure announcement.

Western Malibu also lost two food venues in the last few days, each founded and operated by local favorite chef and proprietor, Wilfredo Barrera, who owns Tramanto’s.

Barrera’s Ju Ju Kitchen and Ciel Orange, each located in Pt. Dume Village, shuttered their doors on March 26, according to social media posts by Malibuites that expressed great dismay about the closures and highly complimented Barrera.

“We’ve known Wilfredo since he was a busboy the first week that Tra Di Noi opened,” E. Barry Haldeman posted. “He has worked so hard to keep his locations open.” 

Distressed community members suggested that concerned citizens launch a letter-writing campaign or a boycott against the landlords at Pt. Dume Village. Many posted comments lamenting about how many small businesses in Malibu have shuttered and about the “astronomical rental rates,” and absentee corporate landlords.  

“Let’s love bomb Tramanto!” Another posting commenter suggested, noting that Barrera and his team operate that favorite locals hangout venue in East Malibu.

Reflecting on the business closures, longtime Malibu restaurateur Kristy Apana, owner of Kristy’s Restaurant told The Malibu Times, “People just don’t realize how much it costs to keep a restaurant going! First, customers don’t realize that California has special laws, such as those requiring that all eggs be free range and all pork must also be free range, so a piece of bacon now costs 20 to 30 percent more than it did just a few years ago.”

“It’s not just the increased food costs and the fact that just to keep the doors open, minimum wages now run $20 an hour,” Apana added. “It’s also that overhead has increased enormously, including insurance costs. When customers see higher prices, I hope they realize that we didn’t raise them because we wanted to; rather, we’ve raised them just to keep the doors open.”

Jill Ahrens, owner of Malibu Brewing Company, addressed the reality of operating a restaurant in Malibu as well.  Commenting online, she suggested, “I can say without a doubt, if you have the means, VOTE WITH YOUR DOLLARS. The local small businesses are here for the community, but we rely on the community’s support as well.”