FROM THE NEW LONDON DAY:
Seahorse owes more than $900,000, must be handed over to creditor next week
Groton - Weighed down by more than $900,000 in debt, the longstanding Seahorse Restaurant in Noank is being forced to close.
Filings in New London Superior Court indicate the restaurant, a local favorite for more than half a century, must be handed over to its main creditor by Jan. 10.
"It was a colorful place for locals," said Betty Helbig, who works at nearby Noank Village Boatyard. "The locals used to come all year round. It's very sad."
The creditor, CIT Small Business Lending Corp. of Livingston, N.J., filed a foreclosure notice against the restaurant's ownership organization, Seahorse Inc., restaurant owner and chef Robert J. Sader of Westbrook and the building's owner, Sader Realty LLC, last May.
Judge James J. Devine finalized the foreclosure in November, at which time a report stated the restaurant on nearly a half-acre off Marsh Road owed its mortgage holder more than $877,000. The debt doesn't include unpaid real estate taxes of more than $26,000 and other fees totaling nearly $5,000, according to court papers.
"It's been an institution for a long time," said Matthew Fay, owner of Noank's Universal Food Store, who said word about the closing was circulating around town.
Neither Sader, former head chef of Bravo Bravo, nor his New London attorney, Gordon Videll, returned calls seeking comment. Calls to the restaurant elicited no response, and an attorney for the creditor, Paul A. De Genaro of Stamford, also did not return a message.
But court records indicate this wasn't Sader's first brush with credit problems. In March 2010, Unifund Corp. sued Sader for more than $15,000 in credit-card debt, and in 2007 SNET Information Services claimed he owed more than $1,600 for ads placed in the AT&T Yellow Pages, according to court filings.
Harry Boardsen, a longtime Noank resident and owner of Livery Limited of Pawcatuck, said the restaurant, which started in 1947 as little more than a hotdog stand next to Spicer's Marina off West Cove, had been a staple of village life for many years.
"The Seahorse was to Noank and Groton and Mystic what Hughie's (restaurant) was to New London," said Boardsen, referring to a city hangout made popular by restaurateur Hughie Devlin before being closed down a decade ago by the Fort Trumbull development project.
"It was a nice, small, cozy place," he added. "It was the place to go."
But Boardsen said the Seahorse's food and service had fallen off dramatically in recent months, and many customers, himself included, had started to frequent The Fisherman restaurant at the entrance to Groton Long Point.
John F. Williams, owner of The Fisherman who learned the restaurant business as a bus boy and server for the Seahorse, said the demise of a local institution indicates the struggles local operators are having in today's economy and the need for customers to support homegrown businesses.
"A lot of business owners are under the gun," he said. "It's a sad thing to see a local landmark like that disappear."
Sader bought the Seahorse from John Hewes, current operator of the Mystic Boathouse, for $500,000 in December 2003, according to court documents. An appraisal of the property says it is worth $402,000 today.
Hewes had run the 3,600-square-foot restaurant and bar for 22 years. Before him, Charles Doughty and Bruce Wakefield had operated the Seahorse for more than two decades.
The Seahorse's appraisal, by Stephen P. Smith of Morrow Morgan Smith Inc. of Farmington, said the restaurant, viewed during a typical lunchtime during the boating season, "indicated a low level of business activity." It added that "the vicinity lacks commercial drawing power outside the neighboring land uses."
Sader had brought a restaurant pedigree - trained at Johnson & Wales University in Providence and previously with the Copper Beech Inn in Ivoryton and Restaurant du Village in Chester, where he served as executive chef - but Boardsen said his attention to customers was lacking.
"In this environment, only the strong are going to survive," he said.
Tricia Cunningham, president of the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce, said the demise of the Seahorse is sad news, but she expected someone else would take over the space by the spring or summer.
"That's a prime space," she said. "I don't think it's going to stay empty for long."