Fulton Sub Shop’s Owners Close Restaurant Due to Financial and Health Burdens
BY JIM MALVEN
For three and a half years, Fulton Sub Shop was a favorite eatery and hangout spot for many Westminster students. But on Friday, March 4, the restaurant served customers for the final time. After facing increasing medical and financial hardships, management tried to sell the business but failed to do so and was forced to close.
The Columns sat down with Sub Shop owner Matt McNelley, 40, and his fiancé and Sub Shop employee Tamara Dougherty, 46, at the restaurant on the afternoon of the closing. Throughout the interview, customers rushed in to get their last taste of Sub Shop’s subs, as slow jazz music played and Dougherty struggled to hold back tears.
Dougherty and McNelley explained that they have been trying to sell the restaurant to lessen their financial and emotional burdens but have been unable to close a deal.
Dougherty said her sister passed away from breast cancer at 31, and the couple considered moving to Branson, where Dougherty’s family lives, to offer support.
“My mom has taken it extremely hard, and when you go through stuff like this in your family — and I have a five-year-old niece from my sister — you realize how important it is to be close together and spend your days together, so we wanted to sell this place and move to Branson to start something else,” Dougherty said.
Roughly a year later, McNelley became seriously ill and was in and out of the hospital for several months. The couple said that although he is now recovering, his medical expenses created an enormous financial burden, even though the restaurant made a steady profit.
“We started to think about selling it because of my sister and my mom and all my family issues, and then he got sick and was hospitalized several times off and on, and then I just realized I can’t do it all myself,” Dougherty said. “Financially, this was our only income — the restaurant — and it’s kept us alive for the last several years, but with him being sick and everything we’ve gone through, I just can’t do it emotionally, financially and even physically any longer.”
However, no one interested in buying Sub Shop for the asking price of $200,000 could acquire the necessary funds. When Dougherty and McNelley lowered the amount to $169,000, a buyer was able to afford it but was unable to find a cosigner, which his bank required.
The couple has control of the building until the end of the month, and Dougherty said she has not yet given up hope.
McNelley said he wishes that Westminster or William Woods would purchase the restaurant and turn it into a work-study opportunity for students.
“Students who want to learn how to cook, learn how to run a business could come here,” he suggested.
Dougherty added, “If we were in a financial position to donate it to the college as part of whatever, we would, but we’re not in that position.”
Neither Dougherty nor McNelley knows what they will do if Sub Shop does not sell. It is clear, though, that many people around campus want someone to keep it open.
“I am crying on the inside,” Manfredo Flores, ’18, said on Friday, shortly after he learned that Sub Shop was closing.
Andrew Vitale, ’17, was also upset after hearing the news.
“I’m sad to see Fulton Sub Shop go,” he said. “They were always very friendly and had great food. I thought their pizzas and pulled pork sandwiches were delicious.”
“The owners worked hard to create a successful business and took pride in being a locally owned restaurant,” said Jim Marshall, Westminster’s track and cross country coach, who ate at Sub Shop several times a week.
“We really wanted to sell this place, and we wanted it to remain open, especially for Westminster College and William Woods students,” Dougherty said.
“We love you guys,” McNelley added. “We treat everyone like family that comes in here.”
Sub Shop’s family feel included employees giving playing cards as order numbers, off-the-clock workers socializing at the restaurant and, formerly, management providing customers with free Wi-Fi.
“I don’t want to overstep my boundaries by saying that,” McNelley continued. “But we do treat everybody like they’re our family. Nobody is treated differently.”
He then pointed out that they do actually treat some people differently — the handful of local residents they do not charge for food.
“We have several people that come in here and get their lunch for free every day because of what they’re going through in their lives,” Dougherty said.
McNelley compared this act to a business donating money to charity.
Reflecting on her time at Sub Shop, Dougherty said: “This is my heart. We built a family here. All of our employees are family. We all tell each other ‘We love you’ when we leave, and we mean it.”
Including Dougherty and McNelley, Sub Shop had six employees.
“Dana has been here since the day we opened, so this has been her life and her family for four years, and she can’t hold her tears back at all tonight,” Dougherty said.
She said that all of the employees volunteered to work extra shifts when she was going to and from Branson to care for her sister.
“That’s just not something you normally find in a restaurant,” she said. “With all the employees and customers, we were really blessed. We changed our motto to ‘It’s not a job; it’s a family’ because that’s what it is.”
“We really want to thank all our loyal customers who supported us, and everyone is deeply saddened by this,” Dougherty said. “William Woods and Westminster have been such great supporters. We have grown to love so many students and faculty members. We have faculty members and students both who eat here every single day of the week – every day. And we had to tell them today — the ones who we’ve seen — that we won’t be here tomorrow.
As of last Friday, Sub Shop stands as a dark, empty building with upside-down chairs stacked on once-occupied tables.