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The challenges of effective restauranting

January 14, 2022

Food service industry and commercial real estate lore suggests that one in 10 restaurants survives its first year. In my time tracking this stuff around here, I’ll attest to that fact – at least on the average. I’ve written before that restaurants close for reasons other than just money. It’s a 24/7 commitment to do it right, and that pace can wear on anybody. Sixteen years ago, one of the first things I typed into my brand-new RehobothFoodie.com webpage was, “Only the strong survive.” The cyclic turnover in our seasonal resort continues to bear that out.

Of course, there’s always the occasional restaurant owner who will blame the economy, ignoring the obvious fact that other restaurants – right next door or across the street – continue to thrive. Though certainly disappointing and traumatic, the failure of one’s beloved concept is often a sad reminder of a lack of skills, preparation, business sense and (duh) working capital.

In spite of the long list of pitfalls, beloved concepts continue to pop up here at the beach. Longtime local chef Sean Corea and GM extraordinaire Tommy Little are putting together the new Lewes Oyster House in the old Jerry’s Seafood space where the original Rose & Crown used to be. The old Jakes Seafood on The Highway just morphed into the “margarita promised land” – the new Agave Rehoboth. Not a small investment by any means! Speaking of investments, SoDel Concepts will soon open Ocean View Brewing Company – while swooping down right in the middle of it all to keep Surf Bagel alive. Mit Patel and his team (Dos Locos, Dos Locos dos, Cape Wine & Spirits) will soon take over the Savannah Road boutique that is Teller Wines. By the time you read this, Touch of Italy boss Bob Ciprietti will have debuted his Royal Prime Steakhouse at the Bally’s Dover casino (with none other than Philly’s Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse alumnus Rich Furino at the helm). The tiny Poke Bros. franchise will soon light up the space next door to Pete’s Steak Shop. Think sushi with a Hawaiian flair.

Longtime Rehoboth chef Lion Gardner and a couple of the boys from The Pines/Aqua Grill are busy wrestling Baltimore Avenue’s historic Dos Locos/Seafood Shack building into submission to host their new Drift eatery. Get ready for an unusual menu. Chris Agharabi is bringing Hammy’s – his St. Michaels burger concept - to the old Palate spot by the Safeway. This completes his trio of Rehoboth eateries that includes Theo’s and Ava’s. Upstate High Five Hospitality just acquired a long list of Jersey Mike’s franchises, including Rehoboth Beach. Starboard Restaurant Group is busy gutting the old Hammerhead’s Dewey building for its new Starboard Claw – ribs, chicken and steamed hardshells – a Dewey slam dunk, I think. Virginia entrepreneur Freddie Lutz just opened the doors to his festive Freddie’s Beach Bar downtown in the old Pond space. And to add credibility to the old adage, “When one door closes, another door opens,” Arena’s has closed its Long Neck restaurant but will be opening a new one in the former Pickled Pig spot on Coastal Highway by Grandpa MAC. And we can’t forget the new Nicola Pizza being built out on The Highway – and the downtown vacancies it will leave behind. (Stay tuned about that!)

Which ones will survive? Hopefully, all. Are they prepared for the rigors of seasonal restauranting? The longtime veterans certainly are. But that doesn’t make it easy. The point was driven home for me last week during a Zoom call with a commercial Realtor in another popular foodie destination, Charleston, S.C. That busy downtown teems with restaurants, cafes, bakeries, carryouts, hotels; very much like what we enjoy in our Cape Region.

Charleston isn’t nearly as seasonal as our tiny Delaware towns, so shouldn’t it be easier to keep a restaurant running year-round? I called a couple of other commercial real estate offices to (casually) inquire about the surprising turnover in food service businesses. I introduced myself as having owned and operated restaurants in the past (true), and implied that I was researching restaurant spaces there in coastal Carolina (sorta not true).

The friendlier agents who would even give me the time of day confided that they are under constant pressure from landlords to qualify potential restaurant tenants. Though much of that information can be gleaned from projections and financial statements, the real challenge is trying to determine, as diplomatically as possible, if the potential lessee has any clue as to what he or she is getting him- or herself into.

Fans of Robert Irvine’s “Restaurant Impossible” on Food Network can recite from memory the list of well-meaning yet fatally flawed motivations that can spell doom. “Mom is such as good cook! The family decided she should open a restaurant.” Or, worse yet, “I financed and opened the place, and all I need are managers and employees to run it for me. I shouldn’t have to be there. I’ve got other things to do!” (Uh-oh ... .)

Successful restaurants have strong on-site ownership or well-motivated management to ensure that systems (training, etc.) are in place to incentivize employees. We really have to look no further than some of our most successful restaurants here at the beach where employees respect and support the ownership/management. And the wise owner/manager will return that respect and support.

So maybe it’s not so much about on- and off-season business peaks and valleys. Maybe it’s more about making a 24/7 commitment to keep customers smiling. Build it, and they will come … IF you do it right.

 

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at byesbek@capegazette.com.

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