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Restauranting can sometimes be a labor of unrequited love

November 6, 2020

The prolonged and increasingly arbitrary restrictions on our restaurants and small businesses continue to take a heartbreaking toll. Relatively small issues that can affect a business are amplified many times over when the owners and staff do the same amount of work - but without any significant profit.

One of our newer Rehoboth restaurants recently went out of business because the stress of keeping the doors open simply to (almost) break even was too much when other issues befell the owners’ family. Yet another downtown restaurant shuttered a hard-earned second location in Maryland for no other reason than that his lunch crowd vaporized after neighboring offices required their employees to work from home.

Laptop warriors can proselytize all they want, but things can sadly get up-close and personal when misfortune comes to friends and neighbors who did their best to do things right.

My email boxes have been busier over the last nine months than at any other time in my 15 years of promoting Cape Region dining. The majority of these emails reminded me of how little most people actually pay attention to the business of eating here at the beach. The great majority lamented closings with hollow platitudes like, “Oh, we will miss them! I thought they were doing so well!” Why hollow? Because a significant number of these comments come from the very same people who proudly proclaim that they never go to downtown Lewes, Rehoboth or Dewey because of the few bucks it costs to park, or, worse yet, the prospect of having to walk a block or two.

That sort of pretense isn’t the point of this article, but I admit it’s a recurring theme on this page.

Restrictions or not, the truth of the matter is that restaurants close for all sorts of reasons other than lack of business. Downtown rents are notoriously high - and going higher. After all, there’s only so much space a block or two from the Atlantic. If inexperienced owners lack a well-thought-out financial plan (i.e., working capital), they can end up pricing themselves out of the market just to make it through the off-season.

Compound that with huffy online commentary yelping about restaurants being “pricy,” “greedy” and “more expensive than the restaurants at home,” and even the bravest downtown restaurateur can be tempted to turn off the lights forever.

Those who are financially strong enough can choose to buy the property. But many landlords wouldn’t dream of selling. In a Facebook post from a year or two ago, Richard Krick, the former co-owner of Summer House, stated, “…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.”

Last year, Restaurant Business Magazine quoted Bill Post, restaurant consultant and co-founder of the Chicago-based Roti Mediterranean Grill chain: “As landlords continue to raise rent at an alarmingly fast clip, it’s becoming more difficult for operators to abide by the Golden Rule of 10: Never let rent exceed 10 percent of your gross profit. So if negotiation is out of the question, the remaining options are to close, relocate or eat the cost.” A bit of basic math proves that choosing the latter option will inevitably result in one of the first two coming to pass.

The vagaries of small-town regulations, 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 finding “solutions” for the very problems they create.

Seasonal 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 cities for a year-round income, or go back to school in the off-season. Some local restaurants have even resorted to hiring professional recruiters to help fill their key positions with qualified and motivated personnel.

So how do restaurants stay in business? Those that are properly fortified with working capital can afford to build a stellar reputation with consistently good food and service. And that can bring longevity. And out of longevity grows credibility. People will even go downtown, pay to park and even … walk! … to enjoy quality food and service.

Another option is to carve out a niche with a particular concept, a one-of-a-kind ambiance, or even a particular style of ethnic food. If done well enough and properly advertised, happy guests will return time after time.

Now more than ever, restauranting is a labor of love, with equal parts of both, applied day in and day out in steadfast opposition to today’s forces working against success. It has to be a labor of love - why the heck else would anyone do it?

  • 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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