The Station is still serving drinks, Mike Benson told customers as he turned them away from the door to his Southern Rail restaurant Saturday night.
Benson, majority owner of The Station bar and club, the Southern Rail and the Tiger Room coffee shop at 201 E. Main St. next to Carr Mill Mall in Carrboro, closed the doors to the latter two businesses Nov. 27. A message on chalkboards hanging outside the restaurant thanked customers for “9 wonderful years.”
“At this point, we’re in danger of losing the business to the Department of Revenue for taxes,” Benson said, “and with that, everyone realizes that it’s time to sell and zero everything out.”
The money they earn through Dec. 31, when The Station will close, will help pay employees, suppliers and the N.C. Department of Revenue, he said. Southern Rail Ventures LLC still owes $156,000, but the state will drop roughly $56,000 in interest and penalties if the debt is paid by Jan. 1, he said.
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The state, if the bill is not paid, could seize the businesses Jan. 4.
Benson, a Chapel Hill native, and his investors opened Southern Rail in 2007, putting $1.7 million into adding modern utilities and a full kitchen to three antique rail cars and renovating the former train station. He added outdoor seating, two patios and a large beer garden with a performance stage.
They earned between $1.7 million and $2.3 million a year – enough to pay the bills and leave a small profit, Benson said.
But those he hired to manage the businesses made missteps, he said, and they struggled to find chefs who could craft a consistently good menu. He tried but lacked the skills to fill those roles, Benson said.
“It’s just stuff that I thought I would never be doing,” he said. “I always thought, well, I’ll be making posters and going to events and marketing and design, spreading the word. Next thing you know, you’re plunging a toilet (turned) upside down.”
Southern Rail first fell behind on its tax payments in 2009, he said, and the problem snowballed as they spent profits to pay back taxes, leaving new tax bills unpaid. Benson listed the restaurant for sale last year with plans to keep running the club and coffee shop.
He reduced the price this year to $350,000 for all three businesses – the land lease is good for 17 more years – and is negotiating with a potential buyer, Benson said. He’s also working with Milltown, Acme and other local restaurants to find jobs for their 42 employees, he said.
He and his wife, Christy, have separated but remain friends, Benson said, and are working together to raise their young daughters. Benson is staying in Carrboro and will keep his minority role in Bar Pilar and Cafe Saint-Ex, two restaurants in Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian has contacted him about featuring some of his rock photography – as a freelancer with Rolling Stone magazine and for various bands – in its new book.
While he’s not expecting to get his investment in Southern Rail back, Benson said he wants to go out on the right note by settling their debts.
“I live here, I was born here, raised here, mentored by people like Freddie Kiger and Bill Friday. People I respect,” he said. “You’d be surprised in a couple years how something might come back to you for what you do now.”