CHAMPAIGN — Campustown institution Zorba’s has closed for good, its longtime owner said Tuesday.
Matt Mortenson left the business in 2017 after working there for 35 years.
“I sold it about three years ago on a five year contract, and they didn’t make it,” Mortenson told The News-Gazette.
“I sold it to a brother and sister, who ran it for 17 months, then found somebody else to take it over, and he did worse.”
Mortenson said the closure isn’t coronavirus related, but “maybe that was the last nail in the coffin.”
“It wasn’t really Zorba’s, what he was doing,” Mortenson said.
Zorba’s, known for its gyros, opened in 1973.
When Mortenson bought it in 1997, he said there were six or seven other restaurants on the block; now there’s about 17.
“It’s a tough gig,” he said.
Mortenson still owns the corporation and said that he’s open to offers to reopen it, perhaps as a food truck.
“A food truck would be a really cool idea,” he said. “I don’t really want to do that, but I hope there’s somebody else that would.”
He doesn’t own its property at 627 E. Green St., which he said already has new tenants lined up. He was there Monday cleaning up.
“There’s a lot of history in there,” he said.
He said the closure of Zorba’s is “disappointing financially” but mostly looked back on his time owning the restaurant positively.
“There were some great memories working there,” he said, from the many students he hired to the regular customers. “It was a lot of fun.”
Mortenson bought Zorba’s from Jerry Heintze, who bought it in 1980 and now lives in Arizona.
“It’s a very sad day for me,” Heintze said. “It’s one of those things where you think and hope it’s going to go on forever.”
He recalled the scene there after the Illini football team defeated Michigan on Oct. 29, 1983, to continue its undefeated Big Ten season.
“It was a gigantic party on campus. We were crazy busy until 2 or 3 in the morning,” Heintze said. “It was just insane and totally fun.”