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Local customers are the lifeblood of our businesses

May 1, 2020

As I sit here and view images of the City of Rehoboth Beach removing our beloved benches from the Boardwalk, I can’t help but wonder if our delicately eclectic dining scene will ever recover from this travesty. Real people - neighbors, friends - with families and rent bills and mortgages and electric bills and car payments and valued longtime employees are slowly disappearing into nothingness. Obviously this doesn’t just apply to restaurants: The fruits of entrepreneurism and long-term risk are slowly crumbling with nothing more than the casual wave of a hand.

I think about how many times over the years somebody has said or written to me (usually with a self-righteous tone), “Oh, we NEVER go downtown to [Rehoboth or Lewes or Dewey or Bethany - fill in the blank] in the summer or on the weekends! It’s too crowded! And in the summer we have to pay to park!” My response is usually, “Really? You moved to the beach, and you aren’t willing to pay five or six dollars – about half the price of a martini on Baltimore Avenue - to patronize the businesspeople who risk a lot more than that to bring you something you’ll enjoy within steps of the ocean?” Then there are Facebook and website posts in response to an announcement that a restaurant closed - written by many who would never venture downtown if they had to pay a few bucks to park or, horrors of horrors, walk a couple of blocks to patronize that restaurant.

Even in the best of times, restaurants are nickel and dime businesses, and they must sell a certain amount of food to stay alive. It’s as simple as that. And if we locals don’t support them (or at least give them a try - especially in the off-season when vacationers are few and far between), then we can’t sanctimoniously fawn over an owner who finally locks the doors for good.

Restauranting is relentless and not for the faint of heart. Some customers see themselves as experts for no other reason than that they can operate a fork. And they’re happy to tell you everything you’re doing wrong - even if you’re doing it right. But they have no clue what happens behind the scenes. An experienced culinary instructor expressed it best: “No one considers that just because the broccoli costs, say, $1 a head, that the true cost must include how much is trimmed and thrown away.  This is referred to as the actual cost vs. edible cost, and applies to every bit of food served. It’s not like buying 100 T-shirts for $4 each and selling them for $10.  How much hamburger meat do you start with to end up with a four-ounce. burger?  Well, how much fat content is in the meat, and how long are you going to cook it, and to what temperature? Can you call it a quarter pounder if you start with four ounces? No, you can’t.”

She goes on to explain that menu prices must reflect the overall cost of doing business - not just how much that head of broccoli costs. It takes money to navigate endless meddling from regulators, and of course the occasional always-happy-to-be-litigious employee. Food safety is another factor, and every food service business must have at least one person on the premises - every hour they are open - who is certified in safety/sanitation. Restaurants often pick up the tab for that education that can average $150 per person … plus paid time to attend classes.

I wrote a few months ago that the eventual closing of a restaurant often starts with something like these fateful words, “Aunt Murlene loves to cook, and everyone loves her food! She should open a restaurant!” [Insert loud game-show buzzer HERE.]

If Aunt Murlene can’t properly cost out a menu, train staff, treat them right, be on site as much as humanly possible, order, prepare and store large quantities of food safely, then she should stick to her dinner parties. Otherwise the last thing on her mind will be her recipes as she expends endless energy staying upbeat to serve the public; mustering up even more energy when the dishwasher doesn't show up; all the while calculating costs down to the penny in an effort to open again tomorrow.

When a restaurant closes, it can be due to any number of factors - including just getting tired and walking away. But the next time I hear somebody say they never go downtown or don’t want to walk a few blocks to a restaurant; I might suggest they refrain from shedding crocodile tears over a place they never saw fit to visit.

On that note, please continue to support the meager carryout business of your favorite eateries. At the most, the pennies it earns might keep a few employees working. And tip like you were sitting at a table. Who knows; maybe one day we’ll be able to do that again.

  • 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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