World Sports Cafe, a longtime River Park restaurant and bar run by a Fresno football legend, has closed.
The 15-year-old business's lease ended this month, and owner Tim McDonald decided not to renew it, said the restaurant's former director of operations Matt Johnson.
The sports-themed business opened in January 1999 in River Park's second phase of development, and has been a well-known anchor for the shopping center ever since.
McDonald started the restaurant while he was finishing his 13-year NFL career with the San Francisco 49ers. Once back in town, he coached his alma mater, Edison High School, for seven seasons and spent a year as an assistant football coach at Fresno State. He took a job with the New York Jets as defensive backs coach this past season, signing a two-year contract. He did not return calls seeking comment.
"Tim McDonald came to the end of the lease and I don't really blame him," Johnson said. "Trying to manage a business from New York can't be easy."
The restaurant would have had to commit to another four years in the space, Johnson said.
Johnson, who was a teammate of McDonald's during their days at USC, has been involved in the restaurant since the beginning. He officially resigned from the World Sports Cafe job last year to focus on coaching Edison's football team. But he said he's still tangentially involved in the restaurant.
The restaurant's more than 100 employees, who had heard rumors for months, were notified of the closure via phone Monday morning. They showed up in the afternoon to pick up their paychecks. They traded hugs and handshakes and posed for photos on the restaurant's patio.
Jeffrey Rios has been a bartender there for nine years.
"It's a little depressing, a little sad," he said. "It's a great place."
Workers were already dismantling the restaurant, wheeling out kitchen equipment and carrying away the dining room's large flat-screen TVs.
The closure came just a day after the restaurant was hopping with Sunday's two NFL conference championship games.
Customers repeatedly tried to open the restaurant's locked doors Monday before noticing the signs on the doors saying it was closed.
"I'm kinda sad," said customer Amanda Carnes of Fresno. "I liked this place."
Johnson said it was a sad day for the employees and the restaurant, but added that World Sports Cafe had a good run.
"For all those who said two jocks ... would never make it, we showed we brought something very, very special to the Valley," he said. "It's just that good ol' football bug. It's still in all of us."