The interior of the Natural Cafe at 508 State St. in Santa Barbara.
The Natural Cafe at 508 State St. in downtown Santa Barbara is closing its doors after 30 years. Owner Kelly Brown says conditions downtown — involving the homeless, parklets and rats — have made operating the eatery untenable. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

Another one of downtown Santa Barbara’s flagship local restaurants is fleeing State Street. 

The Natural Cafe at 508 State St. is closing its doors after 30 years. The lease is up in March 2023, and owner Kelly Brown told Noozhawk on Friday that State Street is no longer a viable place.

“There is no more business lunch,” Brown said. “The tourists don’t go downtown. They go to the Funk Zone. There’s the criminal homeless and the parklet problems. This isn’t a restaurant issue. It’s a location issue.”

Brown fired off a letter this week to property owner SIMA and its founder, Jim Knell.

“The rat/vermin problem, which starts with the city and their lack of any program to address this, has in the last few years become intolerable,” Brown wrote. “Look under any parklet and you will find rats nests. Food is just falling on them from above.”

Brown said government’s job is to level the playing field, but that the parklet program favors the few at the expense of the many.

“We need to remove the parklets, clean up State Street and police it,” Brown said. “Why is it so hard for the city to do these simple things? Seems like Job No. 1 to me.”

The letter also stated that conditions have taken an extreme turn for the worst the last few years with homelessness.

“Aggressive panhandling has always been challenging, but it has now turned into straight up criminality,” Brown said “Consuming alcohol and drugs in public, using planters for toilets, camping in empty store fronts or locking themselves in our bathrooms and showering, sleeping and using drugs is an every day occurrence.”

The Natural Cafe’s exodus hits hard at the current debate over parklets and the decline of State Street.

While the city moves sluggishly on a State Street Master Plan, businesses are fleeing the city, from the corporate McDonald’s and longtime local establishments such as the Brasil Arts Cafe to start-ups like Beans BBQ. Retailers have also left in droves.

The city is trying to regulate outdoor dining and parklets, but critics contend that its approach has jumped the shark, and that planners are stuck in a state of paralysis while they dream of turning State Street into a vibrant outdoor marketplace in several years.

Tables outside the Natural Cafe at 508 State St. in Santa Barbara.

The Natural Cafe at 508 State St. in downtown Santa Barbara is closing its doors after 30 years. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

The city hired a $780,000 consultant to fix the outdoor space, but it’s not helping some businesses at the moment. 

Property owner Knell said city leaders have failed.

“The is a tragedy what’s happening on State Street,” Knell said. “This issue with the rats, and the homeless, nobody is minding the ship at the city  The city is on path toward destruction.”

Brown said he took out his outdoor dining parklet because rats were nesting underneath. Brown and Knell said rats are everywhere on State Street because of the parklets.

“The place is full of rats because of parklets,” Knell said.

He also noted that Restoration Hardware on the 700 block is now on a month-to-month lease, and he expects them to leave. 

Mayor Randy Rowse has raised concerns in recent months about the parklets. He said it made sense to boost outdoor dining during the COVID-19 pandemic, but now that it is waning, it’s time to take a deeper look at State Street.

“Kelly has been there down there long enough to have seen it all,” Rowse said. “He wouldn’t be giving it up if it were viable location. To lose a longtime person on State Street like that is not a good sign.”

For Brown, closing the Natural Cafe, known for its grilled chicken sandwich, zen burger and a variety of other fast-casual healthy food options, is a sentimental decision.

It’s the original restaurant. Still, he said, every employee at the site will be offered jobs at the other locations in Santa Barbara and Goleta. The other restaurants, he said, are doing great.

“I have guests who have been eating there for 30 years,” Brown said. “Downtown was so cool back in the day.”

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.