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This relentless business of eating

May 20, 2022

It’s no secret that unskilled, unprepared or underfunded restaurant startups most often end up in failure. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Only the strong survive in this business of eating. An occasional owner might even blame “the economy,” ignoring the obvious fact that other restaurants – next door or across the street – are thriving. No matter the reason, the failure of one’s beloved concept is a sad wake-up call.

I’ve been thinking about all the new openings for our 2022 season. The old Hammerheads in Dewey will soon rise again as Starboard Claw. Former Nage chef Sean Corea and front-of-house guru Tommy Little are working long hours in anticipation of their new Lewes Oyster House. Former nightclub owner Peter Elias is making waves with his brand-new rooftop Spain Wine Bar in Ocean City. Bryan Derrickson is grooming the old Murph’s spot to be the new Conch Island in Rehoboth. Energizer Bunny Chris Agharabi and his team (of Theo’s and Ava’s fame) will soon open Hammy’s Burgers & Shakes. Former Blue Moon boss Lion Gardner and partners from The Pines have brought on Rob Bagley to GM Drift, their new Baltimore Avenue concept. Bob Frankis and Mike Venanzi shed their Greene Turtle brand on the Rehoboth Boardwalk and have created the new – upscale and still family-friendly – Above the Dunes. The list goes on and on.

Which ones will survive? Hopefully, all. Most are familiar with the rigors of seasonal restauranting. The point was driven home for me a few weeks ago during a visit to Charleston, S.C. A restaurant haven in its own right, this Southern culinary mainstay is a bigger version of Rehoboth, Baltimore and Wilmington avenues where several parallel streets teem with restaurants, cafes, bakeries, music venues, carryouts and hotels.

So far, so good – until I ventured out onto Charleston’s iconic King Street to discover that more than a few of the little eateries I remembered from previous visits had been replaced with For Lease signs. But wait – Charleston isn’t nearly as seasonal as our tiny Cape Region towns! Shouldn’t it be easier to keep a restaurant running year-round in a city that sports an international airport, hosts cruise ships and harbors a large year-round population?

So I decided to do a little research. I’ve been fortunate to become friends with several Realtors there, so I asked them about the surprising turnover in food service businesses. Lo and behold! They all confided that they are under constant pressure from their landlord clients to qualify potential tenants before they sign on the dotted line. In other words, to make sure that restaurateur wannabes possess sufficient funds and working capital to not only construct and open the place, but also to keep it running. Though much of that information can be easily gleaned from financial statements, the real challenge for these agents 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.

One of them told me she tries to get together informally with the potential leaseholder to learn about his or her motivation and experience. Any fan of Robert Irvine’s “Restaurant Impossible” on Food Network can recite from memory the list of well-meaning yet fatally flawed motivations that doom a food service business. “Mom is such a good cook! The family decided she should open a restaurant.” I can already hear the mournful notes of “Taps.” Or, worse yet, “I financed and opened the place, and all I need are really good managers and employees to run it for me. I shouldn’t have to be there. I’ve got other things to do!” (Listen … yup, that’s “Taps,” sure enough.)

The majority of successful restaurants – no matter where they are – have strong on-site ownership or generously vested management that provides quality training and ensures systems are in place to incentivize employees and let them know how important they are to the operation. If the owners bring savvy business experience and people skills to the table – both in the kitchen and in the dining room – the chances of success increase dramatically.

We really have to look no further than some of our most successful restaurants here in Rehoboth Beach where employees respect and support the ownership/management, and owners/managers return that respect and support. As they work to weather today’s ongoing help crisis, more than one owner has been seen tending bar, running deliveries and bussing tables. The silver lining? That sort of thing can galvanize a restaurant team into working arm-in-arm with the boss to keep the business alive.

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 your concept and your employees. One need look no further than some of the consistently successful restaurants both here and in Charleston: Build it, and they will come … IF you do it right.

Bob Yesbek writes and talks beach eats nonstop. He can be reached at byesbek@capegazette.com.

  • 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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