The owners of Rox Diner are launching a new eatery in Newton Highlands,
in the storefront left empty for more than a year after local favorite Bakers’ Best shut down its restaurant operations.
John Fortin and Paul Louderback, the co-owners of Rox Diner, have an agreement pending city permit approvals to sublet the space on Lincoln Street from Bakers’ Best owner Michael Baker. Fortin and Louderback are also finalizing a long-term lease with the property owner.
The new restaurant will be called Rox Café and is scheduled to open around May, Louderback said.
Unlike the pair’s other
restaurants in West Roxbury and Newtonville, Rox Café will have a bar area and market section, where customers can buy takeout food, in addition to its restaurant seating. The menu will be narrower but also more experimental, Fortin said.
Rox Café will serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but “with a little more finesse,’’ Fortin said. “We’re very excited. We’re finishing the final details.’’
News of a tenant finally stepping into what has been the anchor space in the Newton Highlands commercial district was greeted with anticipation and relief by other merchants.
“It’s been a hole for us,’’ said Annabelle Ship, the owner of Green Planet Kids, a store that sells children’s toys and books. “It has not been good for the street to have a vacancy.’’
Ship has been in business in the Highlands for more than 20 years, and she said the Bakers’ Best closing marked the first major vacancy in the village in her memory. The restaurant drew walk-in customers to many of the surrounding stores, and its absence hurt business, she said.
“It should be a great thing for the area,’’ Emilie Brassil, whose family owns Highland Opticians, said of Rox Cafe. “We need a new, fresh face around here.’’
Bakers’ Best and its chicken and grape salad and soups were cornerstones of Newton Highlands. The restaurant had been in the village since 1984.
Baker said he decided to close the restaurant because he wanted to spend more time with his family, and its Needham-based catering services had become a much more significant portion of the business. The Bakers’ Best commissary continues to do well, Baker said, and he doesn’t regret closing the Newton Highlands restaurant in December 2011.
Still, the search for a new tenant took much longer than the few months Baker initially anticipated. Baker, who still had four years on his lease when he closed the restaurant, has continued to pay the rent on it for the past year.
The still-struggling economy and the size of the space — 3,800 square feet on the main level, with another 6,200 square feet of production area in the basement — made it difficult to find another viable tenant, Baker said.
“The size made it an economic issue,’’ Baker said. Rent was more than $13,000 a month, he said.
Louderback said he was aware that the Bakers’ Best property went on the market in 2011, but at the time, he and Fortin were focused on opening the Rox Diner in Newtonville.
With Rox Diner now up and running, the pair are ready to expand their brand. The Newton Highlands space was appealing because they knew that Bakers’ Best had succeeded there, Louderback said.
“We knew the customers were there,’’ he said.
Under the agreement being finalized by the parties, Fortin and Louderback will rent the space from Baker until the end of his lease in 2½ years. Then the Rox Café will lease the space directly from Walter Einstein, the property’s owner.
Rox Café has submitted a request for a food service and liquor license to Newton’s licensing board, said Candace Havens, the city’s planning director.
Fortin and Louderback will also have to apply for building permits to do interior work on the space, Havens said.
Since Rox Café will initially retain the same seating area as Bakers’ Best, the restaurant won’t have to conduct parking studies or apply for special permits before opening.
“It’s a straightforward process,’’ Havens said. “We’ll be following this and eagerly awaiting the outcome.’’