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Opens door for ethnic grocery & expansion
Richard Simas, Jr., points to the corner of the commercial building on West Center Street and Maple Avenue in downtown Manteca that used to be the home of Nicks Place, a sit-down restaurant. When it closed its doors in November, Simas and his father seized the opportunity to expand their Fantastic Collectibles business located next door. - photo by Photos by Rose Albano Risso

Mr. Biggs Smoke House & Custom Cake. Closed.

Village Sandwich Shoppe. Gone.

Nick’s Deli. Out of business.

Three businesses — popular dining destinations — closing all in a matter of months. All three  in a prime central location —within a city block, in fact — right in the very heart of Manteca’s downtown district in the block formed by Yosemite Avenue, North Main, Maple Street, and Center Street.

That’s quite a chunk sliced out of the downtown’s revenue-raising sources in one place. Even worse, there’s no restaurant left in that one city block.

Family illness compelled two of the three restaurants to quit. The third simply succumbed to economics.

As bad as this situation that was created by the shuttered businesses, there are also some good news arising from these depressing developments in downtown Manteca.

But first, a quick look at what the city’s central business district lost in the last several months.

uThe Village Sandwich Shoppe. Among the many regular customers who are lamenting the loss of Village Sandwich Shoppe is Shawn Nussbaumer, owner of J & J Printing next door. He ate at the restaurant more than once a week for lunch.

Long the town’s go-to for lunch for more than two decades, the story behind the decision to close the business is explained in a short note posted by owners Tim and Cecelia Drake on the door to their once flourishing eating establishment.

The announcement reads: “After serving Manteca for over 20 years, the Village Sandwich Shoppe is forced to close due to illness. Those that have been a part of our Village life, we say thank you. Words truly cannot express our gratitude for your loyalty and support. Know you have become our extended West Coast Family and will be truly missed.

“There is much more to do on our bucket list and for our adopted community, but for now, we need to focus our efforts on getting Tim healthy again.

“With a heavy heart, we say goodbye, but only for now....” — Tim and Cecelia Drake

There is no word on the latest update about Tim’s health condition. A message left on their cell phone seeking comment was not immediately returned.

Tim was the mainstay at the restaurant, preparing the sandwiches and soups that were perennial big hits to their many loyal customers. Cecelia, among many other things, co-owned the now-defunct weekly Manteca tabloid newspaper, The Sun Post, with former mayor Carlon Perry. She works for the California Newspaper Publishers Association in Sacramento.

The scrumptious menu selections which included soup in bread bowls were not the only attractions at Village Sandwich Shoppe. One big thing that lured patrons into the small but cozy surroundings was the ambience which offered a dining atmosphere steeped in local history. While diners feasted on their meal, they could feast their eyes on the decor all around which included built-in shelves that were a part of the old pharmacy that this place was at one time, and whose history dated back to the 1950s, perhaps even earlier. Nostalgic black-and-white vintage photos on the shelves and on the walls also provided an entertaining visual accompaniment to every meal, if not conversation pieces.

uMr. Biggs Smoke House & Custom Cakes. Just around the corner north of Yosemite Avenue on Main Street is a building complex that houses several businesses including Mr. Biggs Smoke House & Custom Cakes sandwiched between Tammy’s Baby Shoppe and Angles Salon. Mr. Biggs lived up to its boast of being the diner with the biggest burger in town — one-pound burgers served with all the trimmings without a hefty extra charge. Sean Aquino, the husband who co-owned the burger-and-cake eating outlet with wife Janelle, barbecued the hamburgers himself in his charcoal barbecue pit in the back. It was not hard to find the place; you just needed to follow your nose. Besides the one-pound burgers, the menu included barbecued chicken and steaks plus an array of salads and side orders that complemented the meal. Custom-made cakes for all occasions were also available to customers with Janelle as the cake artist.

Unfortunately, long hours of hard work and dedication proved not enough for the couple to keep their business doors open. When Janelle’s seriously ill father, whom she took care by herself at home, turned for the worse, the Aquinos — who also had young children of their own — had to make the tough decision even though they tried to soldier on. Janelle’s father is now in hospice. Meanwhile, Sean has turned his attention to a business that he was involved in at one time prior to opening the restaurant — custom classic-car upholstery — which he runs in one of the units where Anderson Mower is located on North Main Street.

uNick’s Place. Just a skip and a hop away from Mr. Biggs in the back parking lot was a restaurant facing Center Street. Nick’s Place was nothing new for those who frequented the downtown restaurant through the years. For many years, it was the home of the long-running local restaurant people knew as the Manteca Downtown Deli. After the owner died, it passed on to new management twice. After the last owners quit, the place then became Nick’s Place. Richard Simas Sr. and his son of the same name, owners of Fantastic Collectibles next door, were friends with the owner of the restaurant and were regular patrons at the dining place. Father and son said they were sorry to see the restaurant go out of business but said they understood the tough situation the owner was going through which forced her to call it quits in November 2015.

But here’s the good news as far as the downtown’s economic horizon is concerned.

The closure of Nick’s Place provided an opportunity for Fantastic Collectibles to expand.

There’s also a silver lining in the wake of the demise of Mr. Biggs Smoke House. It is now under renovation for the new tenant, one that will sell ethnic grocery and goods, according to Sean Aquino.