Restauranting against all the odds
The annual shuffle of restaurants opening (and closing) is guaranteed to trigger a not-entirely-unexpected flood into my email boxes. Some lament the closings: “Another one bites the dust,” they keen. Or the syrupy (and often insincere), “Oh, we will miss them! I thought they were doing so well!” Why insincere? Because a significant number of these comments come from the same people who proudly announce, “We never go downtown, because we don’t want to (1) pay a few bucks to park, or (2) – (horror of horrors) - walk.” Some of the other emails default to the negative. “Oh, they own two restaurants. I hate chains!” Or the always reliable, “They’re so pricey. I hate greedy people!” That sort of pretense on both sides is not the point of this article, but it does seem to crop up on this page from time to time.
The truth of the matter is that restaurants can close for many reasons. Rents are notoriously high – and going higher – in downtown Rehoboth. After all, there’s only so much space a block or two from the Atlantic. Lacking a comprehensive financial plan, some restaurant owners can inadvertently price themselves out of the market just to make it through the season. Compound that with huffy online commentary shrieking about restaurants being pricey, greedy and “more expensive than the restaurants at home,” and even the bravest proprietor can be tempted to throw in the towel.
Though some have tried to buy the property they rent, many landlords wouldn’t dream of selling. Some local properties have been in families for ages, and they see the rentals as a benefit to their children and grandchildren. In a Facebook post from a couple of years ago, former Summer House co-owner Richard Krick said, “I can tell you that the [downtown] rent is out of control and had I not been lucky enough to buy my property I too would have had to call it quits.” Purple Parrot owner Hugh Fuller, a wise businessman and property owner, responded, “Absolutely. That’s the only way [to do it] downtown. I feel like I was one of the lucky ones.” Robin Hood owner Kosta Tsoukalas told me how his mom and dad virtually moved heaven and earth to acquire ownership of their tiny storefront on Rehoboth Avenue. The late Harry Tsoukalas was a smart guy.
The vagaries of small-town regulation, inspections and the like can cost an entrepreneur thousands of dollars as he or she waits for a signature on an approval for this, that or the other thing. Some politicians go through the motions of trying to find “solutions” for the very problems they created.
Resorts are one of the most difficult environments for finding and keeping good help. The simple fact is that a significant percentage of those who apply for jobs are not qualified, while others either move on to the big city for a more consistent year-round income, or go back to school in the off-season.
In spite of all that, the majority of our local restaurants are good (and stay that way) because more and more people are moving here full time. Cause and effect (not to mention the inviolable law of entropy) correctly dictate that more businesses will open to serve this increased population. But again, there’s only so much square footage a block or so from the sand. So restaurants have nowhere to go but out onto Coastal Highway. The good – and bad – news for downtown eateries is that customers now have more choices. Add that to the parking challenges (meters/permits notwithstanding), and all of a sudden the downtown entrepreneur faces yet another burden over which he or she has no control.
Some restaurateurs survive by employing the economies of scale. A group that owns three, five or 10 restaurants – especially if they are run cost effectively – enjoys safety in numbers. Small trends up and down are not as dangerous as they can be to a single location. Another way is to build a stellar reputation by providing consistently good food and service. Many of our one-location eateries have earned that reputation. And out of that grows longevity. And out of longevity grows credibility.
Restauranting is a labor of love, with equal parts of both applied day in and day out in constant opposition to the forces working against you. It has to be a labor of love – why else would anyone do it?