The fate of the former Swedish Mill in Kingsburg may be in jeopardy, if the owner of the iconic property can’t pull together a deal to reopen it as a new restaurant.
For nearly 50 years, the building has stood as one of Highway 99’s most recognizable landmarks through the San Joaquin Valley. Its 50-foot-tall windmill and 36-foot-long sail stood as a sort of watchtower over the surrounding vineyards and fruit trees.
But it’s been years since the restaurant served its legendary smorgasbord, and the property’s latest owner, Joe Ghazale of Bakersfield, has struggled to find a tenant. He bought the property in 2014 and at one point planned to reopen as an Irish pub-style restaurant. That never happened.
Over the last several years, the building at 475 Sierra St. has sat vacant as squatters moved in, weeds grew in the parking lot and graffiti covered some of the walls. A towering sign near the highway for exit 112 reads “Kings Buffet,” a Chinese food restaurant that was the building’s last occupant.
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Frustrated by the blight, city officials gave Ghazale an ultimatum in October: Fix the property or the city would begin the process to do it themselves.
The council targeted three properties, including the Swedish Mill, that they wanted cleaned up. They also beefed up their ordinances, giving them the ability to apply pressure to property owners who drag their feet.
If the property owner continues to ignore the city, it can bulldoze the building and bill the owner for the demolition.
“The council hears so much about the impact of vacant buildings and we are trying to be responsive to everyone that has invested in Kingsburg, but at the same time we have to be respectful of property owners and work towards a resolution,” said Alex Henderson, Kingsburg’s city manager.
“But when that starts to stall or we feel like we are being led on, we have the opportunity to take the next step.”
Ghazale said he understands the city’s concerns and has vowed to make things right. City officials acknowledge he has made some strides, including adding a new roof, new windows and new paint job, but the building is still without a new restaurant. And that makes city officials a little anxious.
Mayor Michelle Roman, said no one on the City Council , including herself, wants to tear down the building. But they also don’t want one of the community’s most recognizable landmarks sitting vacant with weeds sprouting in the parking lot.
“We have been doing a really good job in Kingsburg, and we are at a great turning point,” Roman said. “We have a thriving downtown with boutique shops and restaurants, and we are trying really hard to be a destination point on Highway 99. But when you come off the highway on Conejo Avenue, one of the first things you see is that building.”
Jolene Polyack, consulting economic development coordinator for Kingsburg, said not only is the city’s downtown thriving, but the area around the Swedish Mill building is also undergoing changes. Plans are in the works for the nearby former K-Mart building to become a State Foods grocery store.
The owners of the local grocery store chain will convert a portion of the building into the grocery store and lease the rest to other retail businesses.
“I am grateful that our City Council has done what it takes to improve several of the iconic structures in Kingsburg,” Polyack said.
The city has given Ghazale 30 days to make significant progress or it will use its options for taking care of the problem.
Kelly Allred, who works for Ghazale, is optimistic the city won’t have to take any action. The plan is to turn the Swedish Mill into a 24-hour Country Waffles restaurant. A portion of the restaurant will have a full-service dining room while also having a grab-and-go bakery option for travelers who want a quick bite and coffee.
Ghazale, who owns a food service company, is the owner of all 20 Country Waffles restaurants in California. He purchased the chain from H.T. “Chic” Brooks, founder of Country Waffles, Brooks Ranch Restaurant and Jeb’s Swedish Creamery.
As director of operations for Country Waffles, Allred said the company has a potential franchisee for the building and they are waiting for that person to secure financing. Allred said it will take several thousand dollars to bring the renovate the building and make it functional.
“We are talking all new kitchen equipment, flooring and furniture,” she said. “Our goal is the same as the city’s and that is to get this restaurant open. We want to make sure it continues to represent the city well.”
Also part of the plan, Allred wants to pay homage to the Swedish Mill’s past with memorabilia from the restaurant, including menus, waitress uniforms and postcards. She is even looking for the Viking statue that used to stand out front.
If everything falls into place, the new restaurant will employ between 30 to 50 people.
“We are doing everything we can to make this work,” Allred said. “We don’t want to have to sell this property.”
Robert Rodriguez: (559) 441-6327, @fresnobeebob