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Eatery at center of Paula Deen controversy closes

FILE - In this June 23, 2006 file photo, Uncle Bubba's Oyster House chef and owner Bubba Hiers, who is also Paula Deen's brother, grills oysters at the Savannah, Ga. restaurant. The wildly popular Georgia restaurant at the center of a lawsuit that left the reputation of famed Southern celebrity cook Paula Deen in shambles has reportedly closed. The Savannah Morning News and WSAV television both reported Thursday April 3, 2014 that Uncle Bubba's Seafood & Oyster House announced the closure on its Facebook page.  (AP Photo/Stephen Morton, File)

FILE - In this June 23, 2006 file photo, Uncle Bubba's Oyster House chef and owner Bubba Hiers, who is also Paula Deen's brother, grills oysters at the Savannah, Ga. restaurant. The wildly popular Georgia restaurant at the center of a lawsuit that left the reputation of famed Southern celebrity cook Paula Deen in shambles has reportedly closed. The Savannah Morning News and WSAV television both reported Thursday April 3, 2014 that Uncle Bubba's Seafood & Oyster House announced the closure on its Facebook page. (AP Photo/Stephen Morton, File)

Paula Deen and her younger brother, Bubba, have shut off the fish fryer and locked the doors at the Savannah, Ga., seafood restaurant that served as the backdrop to a workplace discrimination lawsuit that stained the celebrity cook’s reputation.

Deen and Bubba Hiers co-owned Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House for a decade before the abrupt closure last week.

A spokesman for the Deen family, Jaret Kellers, issued a statement saying Hiers closed the restaurant “to explore development options for the waterfront property on which the restaurant is located.” Kellers said no specific plans have been made.

Orange-and-white barricades blocked the entrance to Uncle Buba’s on Friday, and there were no signs of life outside. The Savannah Morning News reported employees collected severance checks in the parking lot Thursday.

The restaurant closed less than a year after Deen was stung by her admission in a deposition that she had used racial slurs in the past.

She was questioned by attorneys representing a former Uncle Bubba’s manager who claimed she was subjected to racial slurs and sexual innuendo by Hiers. The suit was settled last August, but not before Deen lost her Food Network show and some lucrative endorsement deals.

“I feel bad for her because I believe she and her family are good people,” said Jamie Morgan of Woodstock, Ga., who had dinner reservations at Deen’s still-bustling flagship restaurant, the Lady & Sons, and shopped at the gift shop next door.

Aside from Uncle Bubba’s, Deen’s fortunes have appeared to be improving recently.

In February she announced a deal with a private investment firm that’s dedicating at least $75 million to helping her make a comeback. Soon after, Deen rolled out plans for a $20 million restaurant in the Smoky Mountains tourist hub of Pigeon Forge, Tenn.

Even before the lawsuit, Uncle Bubba’s was already on shaky financial footing. In her May 17 deposition, Deen said both Uncle Bubba’s and the Lady & Sons were funded by Paula Deen Enterprises, the overarching family business. Attorneys asked Deen if she was aware that her chief financial officer had told them Uncle Bubba’s owed Paula Deen Enterprises about $300,000.

“No, that wouldn’t surprise me,” Deen told them.

While Deen’s money kept the doors open and her fame attracted customers, she had little to do with Uncle Bubba’s daily operations.

She told attorneys that she worked in the kitchen for just six weeks after the restaurant opened in 2004, before her television show and book signings diverted her attention.

Nancy Dauner of Cincinnati recalled eating at Uncle Bubba’s three years ago only because it was the lunch stop on a Paula Deen bus tour. Her tour group was herded past plenty of empty tables to a small dining room in the back, where she posed for a photo with Hiers.

“Bubba was there and he was a nice guy,” Dauner said Friday after lunch at the Lady & Sons.

During the deposition, Deen defended her brother despite the restaurant’s struggles.

“Is he perfect? No. Am I perfect? No,” Deen said. “Could somebody out there run my business better than myself? Absolutely. But it’s still my business.”

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