Copabanana in danger of closing

Photo by Google maps
Photo by Google maps

An iconic South Street restaurant is fighting to stay open.

The Copabanana, which opened its doors at the corner of 4th and South streets 45 years ago, has fallen on hard times, according to managers of the trendy restaurant known for burgers, Mexican food and margaritas. Operating manager Nick Ventura says the establishment is in danger of closing due to financial problems, which are the result of a number of hardships over the past three years.

“The Copa is a great place,” Ventura said. “It’s open and accepting to everyone and is a lot of fun. It did very well right up until the pandemic.”

Like most restaurants nationwide, the Copabanana struggled as restrictions were put in place, forcing temporary closures and all types of hurdles for the industry. For a while, it stayed afloat selling drinks on a to-go basis. But Ventura said sales dropped from about $30,000 a week to $8,000 a week since the pandemic. The size of the staff dropped from 27 to a half-dozen.

“We had to close like everyone else did and we had to try to reinvent ourselves by just working outside and selling drinks,” Ventura said. “Through that time, we were doing OK, but people didn’t realize we were paying $30,000 a month in rent. We couldn’t pay the rent and now it’s creeping up on us.”

Ventura has worked at the Copa for eight years and has seen both sides of the coin. Prior to 2020, South Street was still thriving with plenty of foot traffic to bring in unique customers. Despite the restaurant being able to serve full capacity, it remains mostly empty on most nights. Windows were broken during the George Floyd protests in May 2020 and remain unfixed. The Copa is currently involved in court hearings with its landlord, who is trying to evict the restaurant from the current location.

Operating Manager Nick Ventura is hoping to keep the Copabanana on South Street flourishing. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

“South Street was also hit by the riots,” Ventura said. “Our windows were smashed. We still have broken windows out there now covered up with banners because we can’t afford to fix them. It has to stay that way until things maybe turn around.”

Ventura says a community needs to come together for that to happen. Not just at the Copa but to the entire neighborhood in general. He believes the stigma of the mass shooting that occurred almost a year ago on South Street, which left three people dead, is still hindering the businesses in the area. 

“We’ve been struggling but we almost made it up until June 4 of last year when the shootings hit,” Ventura said. “It was a horrible night. And when it hit the national news the next day, nobody came to South Street and we have not recouped since then.”

He said nearly 70 storefronts have closed in the South Street Headhouse District, although there are plans to reopen some as different entities. Ventura believes South Street still has something great to offer.

“We need people to come back to South Street because there are about 70 empty stores now since COVID,” he said. “And if we can’t turn something around and bring people back here, we’re in trouble. Everyone thinks South Street is closed because things have been so dead.”

The Copa on South Street is still owned by Bill Curry, who first opened the doors in 1978 but has fallen ill recently, according to employees. The South Street location is not under the same ownership as the other location on Spruce Street in University City. Ventura attempted to raise money through a GoFundMe to help Curry with his medical bills.

“He was the man of the street,” Ventura said. “When he opened this place, he brought everyone in and was the cheerleader for every business on the street.”

Ventura said the Copa has not received any federal relief funding from the pandemic. Even worse, the South Street location is listed as permanently closed on some GPS apps, which the Copa has not been able to get corrected.

“We were told we would get about $1.7 million because that’s what we lost in sales,” he said. “We got approved for it but we never got a dime for it. Because the corporation name was different from Copabanana, they couldn’t verify that we’re a real company. We’ve been paying taxes for 45 years. Apparently there are a lot of other companies just like us that got stuck in the crisis and didn’t get any money.”

Ventura and the staff know they need help. But they are ready to serve.

“It’s shocking what happened to this place and how a restaurant that was such a busy place can falter so quickly,” Ventura said. “We want people to come back and give Copa a shot and help us through this and try to bring life back to South Street. We need the influx of people to start coming back or we’re not going to make it through the summer.”