It’s a hot, summer day in Eugene, but you wouldn’t know it while seated under a shaded tree-canopied back patio at the new Nelson’s in the Whit. The location is new for Nelson’s but a familiar place for longtime foodies.
For the past two years, Nelson Lopez’s Nelson’s in the Whit has been in the former Tiny Tavern at 4th and Blair, catty-corner from Sam Bond’s. But after people living in its parking lot and a late night fire led to safety concerns for the restaurant workers, Nelson’s in the Whit moved into the building across the street that was once the popular Papa’s Soul Food Kitchen. The restaurant is celebrating its new location with a grand opening party from 4:30 pm to midnight Saturday, August 19.
Since opening the Nelson’s Taqueria food cart eight years ago, Lopez and his husband, TJ Mooney, have long been residents of the historic intersection in the heart of the Whiteaker.
But in the past several months, Nelson’s in the Whit experienced moments that Lopez says made them rethink their business.
On April 16, the Eugene-Springfield Fire Department responded to a fire at Nelson’s in the Whit, just a week after Lopez and Mooney returned from vacation.
The Eugene Police Department began an arson investigation, which wasn’t resolved. EPD spokesperson Melinda McLaughlin says via email that the investigation was suspended pending further leads. Two EPD arson investigators worked on the investigation. “They went as far as they could with the leads they have and if/when they get more leads, they will continue to follow up,” she says.
After the fire, Lopez says that the restaurant’s insurance offer was a low amount that didn’t scratch the surface of the costs of repairs and being closed. But he was overwhelmed with the Whiteaker community’s response.
“I didn’t ask for money, but people showed up to give money and beautiful thoughts about the situation,” Lopez recalls. “I feel special. I feel the love, and I feel blessed every day for this beautiful community. I can feel the support here.”
The restaurant’s workers and customers were also experiencing some safety issues with a group of homeless people living behind the restaurant. Mooney and Lopez say they asked the property owner, Jeff Malos, to move them, but it never happened. Those safety issues were forcing Lopez to consider closing his business.
“My employees were feeling afraid to go outside and throw away trash, or when they are done working at like 11 pm,” Lopez says. “Having these people living behind the restaurant was not easy for them. It wasn’t easy for me. I was having anxieties.”
Malos tells Eugene Weekly that he did everything he could to move the people out. “I had to go through the entire process of evicting a tenant,” he adds. “I didn’t know who they were. It didn’t happen fast enough for me or Nelson.”
Malos says he went to the police, who wouldn’t move them. Then he had to hire an attorney and go through the eviction process, ending with the Lane County Sheriff’s Department being on scene to serve paperwork. It was a process that he says took more than 60 days.
Lopez considered closing Nelson’s in the Whit, but then he saw the building next door was vacant and available to lease. The location was previously home to the Italian Bari Trattoria that closed in December 2022, and before that Papa’s Soul Food and Hilda’s Latin American Restaurant.
In late July, Nelson’s moved into the former Papa’s building, bringing the famous breakfast- and lunch-oriented Nelson’s Taqueria cart. Mooney says they first had to “Nelsonize” the space. The space still has the feeling of Papa’s — the layout of the chairs and table, the wood floors and bar — but it has colorful accents that you’d expect from Nelson’s in the Whit.
“We added the, ‘Hello, Beautiful,’ neon sign, the lights, the artwork,” Mooney says. “We kept it Papa’s bones and structure, but we made it what the customers love, to have that great atmosphere, great food and drinks that we have.”