Pachamamas restaurant up for sale, may close after Valentine’s Day; Rock Chalk gets set for big basketball tourney

News that the highly regarded downtown restaurant Pachamamas is about to close is a bit like cold pizza for breakfast: It isn’t quite right, but it is not quite wrong either. Ken Baker, owner and chef of Pachamamas, has confirmed to me that he has put the restaurant and downtown building up for sale, and the restaurant will close in the coming months if a buyer isn’t found.

Baker said the restaurant simply has struggled to recover from the 2008 recession, when patrons didn’t have as much money to spend on a nice meal.

“The last four years have just been hell trying to chase the dollar, and I’ve wrecked my body in the process,” Baker said.

Baker said he’s had two back surgeries recently, which have played a role in the decision to exit the business. He said he also “has a 6-year old boy who doesn’t see his dad very much.”

As for a possible closing date, Baker said he plans to run the business through Valentine’s Day, unless someone buys it before then. He recently listed the building, 800 New Hampshire St., with Lawrence’s Allison Vance Moore, a top commercial real estate agent with Colliers International. Baker said he is optimistic a buyer will be found, although he said it is hard to predict whether a buyer would want to buy both the building and the Pachamamas name and concept.

The building has a prime location along the active New Hampshire Street corridor. A new Marriott hotel is expected to open at the corner of Ninth and New Hampshire streets in early 2015, and work on a second multistory apartment building at the intersection is expected to begin soon, as well.

“I wish I had the sea legs to wait it out because a lot is happening here,” Baker said.

Baker has been adjusting the business during the past year to try to improve its finances. The restaurant in April stopped serving lunch but added a new happy hour and lighter menu to its Star Bar operations.

Baker has owned the restaurant for 15 years, and moved it from its original location in west Lawrence to downtown in 2006. The restaurant touts its philosophy of using locally sourced produce and other items to create seasonal dishes that have an artisanal feel. Like today, the menu features items such as smoked duck breast, pork osso bucco, or a special dessert like honey bourbon butter cake. (See, that’s why I’m not a chef. I never thought to put them in a cake. I’ve just been consuming those three items separately all these years.)

Baker said he still very much enjoys the artistry of producing fine meals, and said the decision to exit the business has been a difficult one, in part because he also still enjoys working with his staff.

“Some of the most important people in my life have come through these doors and been on my staff,” Baker said.

I’ll work to keep you updated on any pending changes at the restaurant.

In other news and notes from around town:

• Maybe a celebration dinner will be in order for some youth basketball team in Lawrence this weekend. There indeed will be a lot of youth basketball teams in the city beginning today and lasting through Sunday, as the recreation center at Rock Chalk Park hosts its largest tournament yet.

I haven’t been able to get the latest estimate from the city, but it looks like the tournament will bring 50 to 100 youth teams to the recreation center — Sports Pavilion Lawrence — for the event that begins Friday evening and lasts into Sunday. That means probably anywhere from 400 to 1,000 players, plus their parents and entourages. (UPDATE: A city representative tells me about 70 teams are expected. Figure 8 to 10 players per team, that’s around 600 to 700 players that will be out at the facility at various times this weekend.)

The tournament is put on by Agape Hoops Productions out of Independence, Mo. The tournament — called the MO/KS Winter Challenge — will occupy all but one of the eight courts at the recreation center. According to the tournament’s website, it will be for both boys and girls in grades second through eighth.

It looks like the company also has another large tournament scheduled for the Sports Pavilion in March. One thing I happened to notice when I was looking at the company’s schedule is that while it has two tournaments scheduled for the Sports Pavilion between now and April, it has four tournaments scheduled for the Robinson Center at KU during the same period. It may be that the Sports Pavilion already was booked for those weekends, but it does bring up an interesting question of whether KU — who is a partner in the overall Rock Chalk Park sports complex — will be a competitor with the Sports Pavilion for youth tournaments, or whether that part of Robinson’s usage will be phased out? And certainly, I think city officials are hopeful of landing some tournaments that are so large that both facilities will need to be used.

I don’t have a solid update on how many tournaments have been booked at the Rock Chalk Park center thus far, but city officials said they’ve been very pleased with the response from tournament organizers in the early going.

City officials also have been thrilled with the number of Lawrence residents coming out to use the facilities. The city tallied 63,807 visitors to the recreation center in November, up from 53,100 in its opening month of October. Parks and recreation officials report the indoor walking track has been drawing large numbers of retirees to the center, and the new gymnastics area and indoor turf field both have been in high demand for free play. That’s in addition to the large number of volleyball and basketball leagues that have been having practices and games at the center.

Some of you have asked what the large crowds at the Rock Chalk Park center have done to attendance at the other recreation centers in town. Parks and recreation officials said attendance at those other centers, particularly Holcom and East Lawrence, have dropped by about 50 percent since the opening of Rock Chalk. Smaller usage numbers have made it easier for people to use the gyms at those facilities for “free play.” A lack of free-play time at the existing centers was one of the issues leaders hoped would be improved with the construction of the Sports Pavilion.

But parks and recreation officials also expect attendance to pick up at those other centers in the coming months. The department moved pretty much all of the basketball leagues to the Sports Pavilion as a way to introduce the facility to large numbers of people in the community. But the department plans to move some of those games back to the other centers around town as the season progresses.