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August 26, 2008 9:28 AM

Asteroid to crash?

Posted by Nancy Leson

"Please come to Asteroid's closing party" -- said the e-mail invite from the longtime anti-war activist who did big business out of a teensy Wallingford shack before blasting off to fancy new digs in Fremont in 2006. Oy! I thought: another one bites the dust. Then I grabbed the phone and hit speed-dial for Marlin Hathaway, owner of the Italian ristorante with the otherworldly name. "So, are you sorry you moved the Asteroid?" I asked the outspoken purveyor of pasta and "progressive" politics, "Absolutely," he said.

There's a reason I've regularly described Marlin Hathaway as wearing "his heart on his sleeve and the Earth on his arm." Marlin told me he's sorry he didn't put the $134,000 he spent on tenant improvements to the old Red Apple Market space in downtown Fremont into the rickety restaurant he'd leased prior to the move. "I should have given the money to Fern!" he said, honoring the name of his Wallingford landlord. "My rent was $850 a month there. Now it's $8000."

Yikes! What was he drinking -- some of that acqua pazzo (translation: crazy water) he's selling? Describing a clear-cut case of bigger not being better, Marlin said despite the fact that he was "busting out of the seams" of the Wallingford original and had high hopes for his new thrice-as-big Asteroid in Fremont, he's fallen behind on his lease payments -- again. "I have enough for payroll, but not enough to pay vendors and I'm three months behind on my taxes." Yet he hopes to remain in business through this week.

Meanwhile, he's got "a signed deal" with a [potential] buyer for his handsome newish restaurant: a turn-key operation with 60 seats plus a bar and lounge. If the sale were to go through, he said, he could pay off his landlord and still have enough to "get out of hock and have a little left over." What's more, the new buyer wants to keep his crew. Whether the buyer finds sufficient financing and the landlord OKs the deal is another story, he said.

Though Marlin admits to having had serious financial issues for some time, "I kept my cards close to my chest" before "I told the crew a week and a half ago I'm in trouble." The crew was supportive, he said. "I was trying to make it an honorable out." Which is more than one might say about many other restaurateurs, who've given short (or no) notice to their employees before selling their restaurants and/or closing the doors.

"What can you do?" Marlin asked. "I've been doing this for 10 years. In the last month I've cried, I've gone through fear and anxiety and I've wondered how I'm going to raise my kid. It's freaky, scary. The economy is hurting. In the next six months things are going to get really heavy. I've talked to other restaurant owners who appear to be busy, but they're behind on [paying for] their food and their utilities." But it wasn't all for naught.

"The most important thing coming out of this is that I've been able to help legitimize the anti-war movement, to get Air America started up here. To spread these ideals means a lot to me -- more than the food ever did." He also feels thankful for the opportunity to have helped people like Colin Patterson (his former sous-chef) and Aaron Geibel (who waited tables at the Asteroid for eight years). The pair are now partners in the new vegetarian restaurant Sutra, opened last month in the old Asteroid space in Wallingford.

So, what will Marlin do once he relieves himself -- for better or worse -- of the burden of his Italian restaurant? Well, he's talking to a successful restaurateur who's looking to unload a little place only slightly bigger than the original Asteroid. An intense, counterculturally-conscious guy who just happens to own the building his restaurant sits in. A fellow who just might consider leasing the place to an outspoken guy who wears his heart on his sleeve and the Earth on his arm.

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