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Preserving historic Woolworth's Luncheonette remains at center of new owners' vision

It's hard not to love the historic Woolworth's in downtown Bakersfield — especially the building's crown jewel, the last original Woolworth’s luncheonette in America.

The 1950s-era diner with its chrome and red vinyl chairs, its black-and-white checkerboard floor and its extra-long counter, is a nostalgic treasure that attracts customers from across town, across America and around the world.

But change has been coming since August, when Sherod Waite and David Anderson, co-owners of Moneywise Wealth Management, announced they were in escrow to purchase the building at 19th and K streets.

A few weeks later in October, Jeremy Trammell, who has operated the vintage diner for nearly 12 years — most of those years with his brother, Joseph — told The Californian that he expected to stay with the new owners through the short term, but would say goodbye sometime between January and June.

In recent days, Trammell began telling customers this will be his last week at the luncheonette. He confirmed with The Californian on Tuesday that his last day will be Sunday.

"I've been working 80 hours a week, seven days a week," Trammell said.

"After Sunday, I'm going to take a big, deep breath, breathe a sigh of relief and relax my shoulders for a little while."

Trammell's announcement has sparked rumors that his departure may mean the lunch counter is closing for good.

Nothing could be further from the truth, say the Moneywise Guys.

"Our intention from the beginning has always been to keep the lunch counter open," Anderson said. "While we knew Jeremy was eventually going to leave, the announcement came suddenly and was a bit of a surprise to us.

"We are doing all we can to find an operator to keep the counter open," he said.

Moneywise told The Californian in October that when construction on the building's main floor begins in earnest, the luncheonette will be closed temporarily as plumbing, utilities and other infrastructure are updated.

"Our plan for the lunch counter has not changed," Anderson said Tuesday. "It continues to be the principal focus of the building."

But finding an operator who can hire and train a crew will not be easy. When the antique mall ceased operation in the building in early November, lunch counter sales began to slide.

"We're down about 25 percent," Trammell said.

Staffing has also been difficult. Trammell said he must tell prospective employees that they may not have jobs when the building is closed for construction.

Factor in COVID-19 and the general shortage of restaurant workers, and it becomes a significant challenge.

"We don't even have the staff to run that place in February," he said.

Ironically, the veteran restaurateur is hoping there isn't a run on the luncheonette by customers this week. It feels strange to say it, he said, but lines around the block would be counterproductive.

"That would actually close us early," he said. "I don't have the product or the staff."

Meanwhile, even as they acknowledge the challenges, business partners Anderson and Waite remain confident the historic lunch counter will reopen.

They are already interviewing potential future operators. Several experienced restaurateurs have already approached him and Anderson with offers, Waite said.

In the short term, Anderson and Waite are open to two possible scenarios:

The first is an interim or temporary reopening of the lunch counter until construction begins.

The second is to wait until ground-floor construction is completed before reopening. They expect construction to last about one year, but don't know yet when it will begin.

The three-story, 44,000-square-foot midcentury modern building was constructed in 1949. Plan details are still being ironed out, but the ground floor will be mostly retail mixed use, Waite said. The second floor will be Moneywise office space. And the third is expected to be residential, where both partners and family members will one day live.

The basement will be one of the most exciting developments of all, Waite said. "It's a space where we can have live music and events."

Bakersfield's rich culture and history of music is something they intend to build on.

"We want to create a new tradition," Waite said, "another venue to support local musicians and local artists.

"We're still very positive and excited about the project," Waite said.

"We are open to the community's input," he said. "There are a lot of people that are passionate about this place."

And its future is only just beginning.

"We recognize the value this lunch counter brings to the community," Waite said.

Reporter Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.