Hanging on the doorway of Benihana in the Ocean County Mall were red heart decorations, setting the mood for Valentine's Day. But the Japanese restaurant chain and its neighbor, El Chico, have been closed since Feb. 15.
The handmade signs on both restaurants' doors read: "Sorry, we're closed."
On Feb. 16, furniture was being loaded onto a moving truck from the restaurant, and questions were directed to the public relations firm that represents the Ocean County Mall Simon Property.
The public relations specialist for the mall however declined to comment on specific tenants and instead said questions should be directed to the tenants themselves. Calls placed to the corporate headquarters of both Benihana and El Chico chains were not immediately returned.
On President's Day, both Benihana and El Chico remained closed. Over the weekend, customers who had signed up for updates and special promotions for Benihana Toms River received an email alerting subscribers that the location is permanently closed.
"Our Toms River Benihana restaurant has closed for business. We want to thank all of our loyal guests for their support over the years," reads the email.
Though Benihana had been in business at the Ocean County Mall for several years, last spring owner Hassan Halani expanded to the right of the Japanese restaurant to build El Chico, a cantina-style Mexican restaurant.
El Chico opened Aug. 9, and Halani said at the time the restaurant would employ approximately 60-70 full-time and part-time positions. The Ocean County Mall location was the first El Chico in New Jersey, and though several operate in the southern states, there are no other locations in the tri-state area.
Halani also operates the Edison Benihana, which remains open. Existing Benihana locations elsewhere in New Jersey are at Short Hills and Pennsauken.
The Benihana and El Chico location had one liquor license serving both properties. The site is approximately 8,000 square feet in size.