The Ground Round restaurant at One First Ave. abruptly closed its doors Saturday, leaving employees and patrons in the dark as to the reason.

The Ground Round restaurant at
View Larger Map'>One First Ave. abruptly closed its doors Saturday, leaving employees and patrons in the dark as to the reason. 

“This was a very quick decision on our part,” franchise owner Kathleen Kelly said. “We made a decision based on the economic times that we would close.

Kelly, who also owns a Best Western franchise in Chelmsford, felt the economy was especially difficult on a restaurant like the Ground Round.

“For mid-scale restaurants with food costs and energy costs rising the way they are, the prices of our products haven’t been able to keep pace,” she said.

The closure took the Monday lunch crowd by surprise.

“This place was busy every afternoon,” said one of three businessmen walking down First Avenue for lunch.

But not on Monday. All the blinds were shut and the lights were out. The parking lot was roped off and a handwritten note, offering a “new beginning” at Mandarin Cuisine at
View Larger Map'>238 Highland Ave., fluttered from a nearby sign.

Four more white pieces of paper hung in the Ground Round’s windows. Three of the notes displayed the same message, notifying customers the restaurant had closed and thanking them for their patronage.

“We will miss you,” it read. 

The fourth sign advised the Ground Round’s former staff that the nearby Sheraton Needham sought food and beverage staff. 

Soon, three more cars pulled up alongside the roped off parking lot. 

“What happened? We were here last week,” one man said.

One of his lunch mates recalled a similar fate of other regional Ground Rounds.

“All the corporate ones, like in Norwood, closed,” she said, referring to the 75 corporately-owned units that were shut down in February 2004 following a bank loan default by the chain’s owner. “But this one was individually owned.” 

The group then saw the handwritten note left by Mandarin Cuisine and headed in that direction.

Within a span of 10 minutes, six or seven cars came to a halt at the edge of the parking lot, their passengers attempting to get a late lunch but instead getting a surprise.

Joe Balzarini of West Roxbury was as shocked as anyone when he rolled into the parking lot (through the back entrance, which wasn’t roped off) to find no other cars.

“I was here last Thursday for a drink,” he said with a bewildered look on his face. “Sometimes restaurants do that, just close their doors.”

Kelly said the decision was so last minute that there wasn’t any time at all to notify employees or customers ahead of time.

“We were open Friday, we were open our usual hours, and we did not reopen Saturday,” she said. “The final, final decision was made Saturday morning. Our employees were wonderful employees, it didn’t have anything to do with them. They tried to do what was best for the restaurant.”