Resort restaurants survive on local business
Before I delve into this week’s subject, I want to express my condolences to the friends, family and business associates of Darius Mansoory, the owner of Cherry Tree Hospitality’s Stingray Restaurant on Lake Avenue in Rehoboth. He passed away suddenly last weekend while on vacation. Life is uncertain. Savor every moment.
On yet another sad note, last week I received an email from downtown Rehoboth restaurateur Meg Hudson. She told me in one short sentence that she was closing her Lula Brazil restaurant. It’s never good news when a person’s dream ends, but it’s the nature of the business, and regular visitors to this page know that a wide array of factors can contribute to the demise of an eatery.
I was going to let that go, until readers began to post their comments on my Facebook page, on my web article and/or on the multiple Facebook shares triggered by the closing of Lula Brazil. Posts like, “Oh Meg, we can’t believe it; so sorry to see you go,” or “How sad, how could that happen ... etc., etc., blah, blah....” Though I am sure everyone felt they were being sincere, I couldn’t help but notice that a number of people who I knew for a fact had never patronized that restaurant were chiming in with their surprise at the news. It just seems to me that if one is going to broadcast his or her opinion, concerns or even criticisms - good, bad or indifferent - shouldn’t that person have at least gone there once?
One of the most annoying things I experience in my job is when somebody says to me or writes (usually in a very 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!” Really? You moved to the beach, and you aren’t willing to pay five or six dollars to patronize the businesspeople who risk a whole lot more than that to bring you something they hope you’ll enjoy just a few blocks from the ocean? Among the many comments and posts expressing horror that Meg closed her restaurant, some of these people would never venture downtown if they had to pay a few bucks to park or, horror of horrors, walk a couple of blocks.
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 have no business fawning 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 eat. 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 recently sent me a note, and she 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 maintain a vigilant HR department to answer to regulators such as OSHA, and of course, the occasional always-happy-to-be-litigious employee. Food safety is another essential 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. And don’t forget to add that to paid time away from the restaurant to attend classes.
I wrote a few weeks 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 Murlene can’t properly cost out a menu, train staff, treat them right, be on site as much as humanly possible, and 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 cherished 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 writing menus and calculating costs down to the penny.
Step away from your email box! None of this should be construed to even remotely apply to Lula Brazil or any other restaurant that has closed here at the beach. As I said above, any number of factors can arise – 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 publicly mourning the demise of a place they never saw fit to visit.