ENCINITAS — Kelly McLaughlin went to El Callejon last week, days before the restaurant was scheduled to shut its doors for the final time after 22 years in Moonlight Plaza.
She said she looked around at the restaurant packed with familiar faces — many of them in tears — and felt something needed to be done.
“I just felt like this shouldn’t be a restaurant that should be closing its doors in a few days,” McLaughlin said. “And I started to ask myself why hasn’t the community spoken out about it if it is so significant to so many people.”
McLaughlin decided to act — she created an online petition asking the owners of Moonlight Plaza to reconsider its eviction of the popular Mexican food restaurant from its venerable location. In just five days, more than 1,200 people had signed the petition.
But the effort wasn’t enough, as El Callejon has started the process of moving out of the space.
“It was a tough pill to swallow,” McLaughlin said. “We worked so hard, but you can only do so much.”
McLaughlin said she had been eating at El Callejon since she was 10 or 11 years old.
“It was a Friday night tradition,” she said. “After a while, you would see the same people there every Friday night, and you basically grow up with these re-occurring customers that come in week after week.
“Our family has celebrated birthdays, high school graduations, college graduations, wedding anniversaries; essentially every milestone has happened there,” McLaughlin added. “When we eat there, there are four generations at our table — my grandparents, my parents, my brother and I and our children — and we are not the only ones.”
McLaughlin said she decided to start the petition on Change.org as a way for the community to rally behind the restaurant, not to disparage the property owner. But, she admitted that supporters of the restaurant felt the owners owed the community an explanation.
“We all just wanted to hear from them the ‘why,’ so maybe we could have some closure on it,” she said. “The community feels they deserve some explanation.”
In recent weeks, the heirs of the previous property owners abruptly told El Callejon’s owner that they would be moving in a different direction and that the restaurant was out. Owner Roberto Jourdain said the property owners, the Rotsheck family, would not give him a reason for the decision, despite numerous attempts to work out an amicable solution.
He said he attempted to work through the property management company — including offering to pay six months rent in advance — before attempting to contact one of the family member’s directly, to no avail.
The Rotsheck family has declined to comment on the story.
With the hail-Mary effort over, McLaughlin said that she and supporters wouldn’t lose their energy toward supporting El Callejon when they re-open, regardless of the location.
“Wherever they will go, people will follow, people will wait to hear where they end up and wait for those margaritas,” McLaughlin said. “They have to find something that will stay true to who they are, and when they do, we will all show up every Friday night like we usually do.”