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Restaurant Tragedies

Just curious- does anyone have an experience with a restaurant that you found fantastic in every way - great food, service, atmosphere-yet it never caught on with the general public and didn't survive?
If you've had this experience, why do you think it didn't make it? I'm not talking about restaurants with poor management, owners with personal problems or other such circumstances. I mean a restaurant that seemed to be doing everything right, did have customers that raved about it but just couldn't get a big enough customer base to stay in business.
Any experiences?

Joy

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  1. Maybe I'm off-topic, maybe not, but I have seen numerous restaurants with much going for them and fold for one very identifiable reason - A JINX LOCATION.

    Restaurant after restaurant will open in that location, struggle for 4 or 5 months, and close. Why? Because you can't see it while driving - maybe it's right there to be seen but at that intersection everybody's looking at oncoming traffic in another direction - maybe it's right out in the open but by the time you could see it from your car, it's too late to turn in, you'd have to turn around and go back - or you can't see the sign.

    This usually happens when newbie owners have wanted to open a restaurant ALL THEIR LIVES and rent a location that used to be a restaurant and is now closed ... not thinking about WHY it's closed.

    I remember a pleasant little Italian place that I finally noticed and actually turned around and went back to. I was the only customer at dinnertime. There was the owner's wife as hostess, his kids as staff, all looking worried ("there go our life savings") and the owner, who cooked a mean marinara sauce, coming across like failed salesman character Gil on "The Simpsons," desperate for the success that (he is well aware) has already eluded him and rapidly circling the drain, chatting to me incessantly and begging me to "tell my friends." Of course the place was closed in a couple of weeks, and there went the retirement and the college fund and maybe even the house, all because it's Dad's dream and of course, as TV teaches us, "if you dream hard enough you can do anything."

    4 Replies
    1. re: wayne keyser

      It's so true about jinxed locations, maybe it's just that people perceive it as doomed from day 1. Unless it's got some big name chef or something really unusual and they advertise/PR like crazy. Then maybe they have a tiny chance.

      1. re: coll

        Any place that begs you to 'tell your friends about us' is probably doomed... if it's good enough to be worth recommending, you will without being begged, and if it's not then sorry...
        we went to a lovely new pizza place once and were one of their first customers. The food was great for awhile, but business was very slow. Once they started cutting corners on the food quality we quit going (and so apparantly did everyone else) because the restaurant changed hands soon after.

      2. re: wayne keyser

        This definitely happens. Has anyone seen the Seinfeld episode about this? Hilarious, but all too true, unfortunately.

        1. re: wayne keyser

          Location, location, location. I used to work at Malaysian restaurant that was sandwiched in between two gas stations. We were slammed on the weekends and dead during the week (except for the odd senior who had a coupon). Eventually the owner wanted out. Since the kitchen was set-up for Asian-styloe cuisine it was very appealing to restauranteurs looking to set up an Asian based eatery. I have seen so many attempts at that location (from sushi to Hawaiin), every time I hear of of a new one setting up shop, I exclaim, "I have to try it before it goes out of business!"

        2. All the Rotelli's restaurants in our area are gone. They had good food and were nice places in decent locations and had nice "furniture." The only complaint I ever heard was that the surfaces were hard and the noise level was too high. Could that by itself have caused them to sink? I was at Benihana for the first time ever last night. You want to talk about noise level!! They aren't sinking.

          3 Replies
          1. re: yayadave

            I wouldn't say Rotelli's was exceptional in any way. There was one close by, we found the pizza acceptable (read: better than Vocelli), but we didn't care for their red sauce or the cheese in their lasagne and manicotti. In the location near us, a Bravo opened across the street which was much better.

            Sometimes you just don't know. A location might exceed every metric the consultants tell you to measure, but something like lack of parking on certain nights might kill you in the long run. More often than not, however, is a lack of focusing on managing expenses, which killed some very good places in Pittsburgh.

            1. re: Panini Guy

              Probably the biggest overall problem is not having enough start-up money to keep the place running until it "turns the corner" and shows a profit. Next is lack of managerial skills, knowledge. Also, people don't seem to know that being a great home and neighborhood and family and church function cook does not necessarily transfer to the restaurant kitchen. Then there are those people who think owning their own bar/restaurant is a chance to party with their friends and swish around in the dining room - big time owner. You loose your butt that way. Owning your own joint is tremendously hard work. You don't own it; it owns you.

              Right, Rotelli's is not exceptional. Especially in the Pittsburgh area where you can go to any area of the city and get decent Italian food, even with out the chains. But they did not seem to me to be bad enough to go under. The one you wrote about on Rt. 19 was down in an area where several places have gone down. And it is a high traffic area. Go figure!

              1. re: Panini Guy

                Thinking of places that had NO reason to go down, there was J J Rose's. It was an independent operation in a high class area of the city, in a beautiful old house, with superb service and food. Then it just wasn't ther any more.

            2. Norman's in LA. Excellent food, excellent service, beautiful space, superb sommelier. I think the reason it folded had a lot to do with the fact that people in Los Angeles rarely brave the traffic and inconvenience of the Sunset Strip for fine food. If the location had been different I probably would have dined there much more often. I loved it so much, but living on the other side of town I rarely had the opportunity to visit.

              1. Sticky Buns, a bakery in San Francisco, in the early 1980's...

                They had two stores--one on Market Street (sort of upper-middle Market, If I'm remembering right) and one in Glen Park, the neighborhood where I lived. Both were probably lousy locations, with minimal foot traffic and no parking to speak of. The menu was very limited--pecan sticky buns and raisin sticky buns. These were light and huge and drowned in the most delicious, buttery, cinnamon-y, sticky syrup. They were the Platonic ideal of cinnamon rolls. I risked a parking ticket every morning on my way to work, double-parking or stopping in the bus zone, to stand in line and get one. I wasn't the only one--all my friends adored them. Then one day, they were just gone--the doors locked, no sign, no explanation. I never heard what happened. Twenty-something years on, and I still miss them.

                1. There is a location in Piscataway, NJ that surely qualifies as a hard-luck location. Although I don't have an accurate count, I would estimate that there have been at least 5 different restaurants in the same building over a period of about 12 years, and in some cases, the building was vacant for months at a time in between businesses.

                  Perhaps the most long-lasting restaurant in that location was Rackley's, which specialized in ribs. They were probably there for at least three years, but then succumbed. I can't recall the names of most of the other tenants, but the one whose demise I really regretted was The International Grille. Run by a husband and wife from Russia, they had a head chef who had previously been employed at some high-end Manhattan restaurants. While the decor of International Grille was overwrought and fairly dreadful, the service was friendly and efficient, the prices were decent, and the food was truly excellent. However, for whatever reason, they never attracted much of a following and they closed up after a couple of years.

                  Following International Grillle, there was another management at that location which lasted for an even shorter period of time, followed by another period of vacancy. I have always wondered whether the fact that the restaurant is located directly under high-tension electrical lines had anything to do with the apparent bad karma that seemed to be associated with that location.

                  Presently, Charlie Brown's Steakhouse (a truly mediocre, diner-like cuisine, masquerading as fine dining) is in that space, and judging from the parking lot, it appears that they are doing better in that location than their predecessors. I will not be going there, but apparently Charlie Brown's does have a following that overcomes whatever bad karma had condemned their predecessors to failure. Time will tell, I suppose.

                  1. Restaurant success depends to a great deal on alcohol sales.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                      That's a silly overstatement. Halal places don't serve alcohol (or shouldn't). The vast majority of fast food places are unlicenced. I could go on and on. Most coffeehouses aren't licenced...

                      1. re: John Manzo

                        Although the caveat "to a great deal" was supposed to cover the exceptions, you're absolutely right: I'm a silly overstating type.

                    2. I have seen at least ten restaurants come and go in as many years at the northeast corner of Grand and West Broadway in Soho. I was the sous-chef at one of them, the first Indian-French fusion restaurant in New York (we opened two weeks before Tabla and Floyd Cardoz was actually one of our very first customers.) We had all kinds of press, from Time Out New York to Food Arts to a front page article in the freakin' USA Today, and we still managed to lose over $40,000 a month. There were problems, to be sure, including the fact that the entire venture was a vanity project for a rich Indian guy with zero industry experience and the fact that the admittedly talented Executive Chef spent ten hours a day getting sloshed and playing pool across the street at Toad Hall,(referred to as "The Office" when anyone called looking for him), and the fact that he apparently thought that 40% food costs were just fine. But even more damning I think were the location and physical limitations of the space. West Broadway is awash in mediocre restaurants that turn a profit (Felix, Barolo, I Tre Merli, Novecento, Cipriani etc.) but we alone had a dining room situated on the second floor (not so good for the people-watching that seems to be the raison d'etre for all the other places with french doors that open up onto sidewalk cafes). I'd say that perhaps our concept was too highfalutin' or too fine-diney for the neighborhood if not for the fact that I've never seen any restaurant survive that location for even a year since it housed Jour et Nuit many years ago. And yet still they keep on coming. And going.

                      1. I can think of one such cursed location just a few blocks from my parents' house. It was originally built about 6-7 years ago as a brew pub (presumably at great expense, given the conspicuously displayed brewery equipment in the window) and lasted all of eighteen months, after which the building sat empty for quite a while. There was briefly talk of someone planning to put a small casino there, but that plan got run out of town by pretty much everyone in a matter of a couple of weeks. Someone briefly tried to revive the original place, but that didn't even get off the ground. Later on, the brewery equipment went away, but yet another attempt at a brew pub style place was made, and didn't even last a year. The place is now being turned into a bank branch. In this particular case, I never actually visited any of the places, but I have to think that the location (even though there is plenty of traffic in the area) just wasn't that great. There's pretty much nowhere to park in the area (this is a suburban area too, so there's really no excuse not to have parking) and just doesn't fir the area. Oddly enough, in spite of this there are well-established restaurants nearby that have operated just fine for years, although those are much smaller places.

                        1. The place that comes immediately to mind was a great restaurant that had a lot of potential; however, the owners didn't realize that students would be their only clientele. There was a single family residence neighborhood nearby but student housing seemed to monopolize the area and was more accessible. It was really sad because the food was a lot better than most places in the neighborhood. What did them in was their prices, too expensive for students. The restaurant used to be an old A & W joint but was beautiflly renovated. They even retained an old fireplace and built nice outdoor dining. After they folded it was bought by Taco Bell and the restaurant was gutted once again so it would match the corporate image. Now that was a tragedy.

                          1. Def. agree with jinx'd locations but also odd business hours. New restaurants that don't establish set operating hours, or have odd hours (maybe chef works in two locations) or only open for dinner service needs to work that much harder to keep customers coming in the door and remembering their hours of operation.

                            A number of small but unique places have tried to open in my area and three out of four failed, and failed quickly, because customers kept arriving to a dark restaurant.

                            1. i don't think anybody has really answered the op yet... because if a place is hard to get to, doesn't have parking, has so-so food, isn't on street level or has a drunk pool-playing chef ostensibly running the joint, it's far far far from a mysterious failure.

                              i do know a chef who has opened and is succeeding in a previously *jinxed* location. it's definitely off the beaten path and has no parking. in 10 years prior to him at least 3 other places folded there. the guy can cook like crazy, works like a dog and had very sound financial backing and advice upon start-up. he's gotten national press and his place is thriving with a loyal following.

                              the formula isn't a mystery, but too many people miss too many parts of the equation.

                              i do also know some owners who were forced out when landlords raised the rent just too high to continue viability. likely their margins were just barely enough to keep running and the hike was the sword that killed the beast.

                              1. The top three reasons restaurants go out of business, and this may surprise you: owner has a cocaine and/or other hard drug and/or alcohol addiction, owner doesn't pay the IRS, and employee theft. I know well of the location that diropstem is talking about, and all three or at least two apply to most of the restaurants that have occupied that spot. Sure, locations can be jinxed, but that location? It has always been unbelievable. Also, never work at a place owned by a lawyer who thinks this is his playground.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: pitterpatter

                                  I definitely agree with this one! When in college I worked at a locally-owned pizza place...great pizza. About 80% of our business was delivery, this in a town of about 100,000 that had 7 different colleges/universities. One university had in excess of 30,000 students. This was a pizza delivery place's dream. We had so much delivery business that we had a full-time staff person and 2 part-timers who's only job was to answer the phone and take orders.

                                  It went under...while I was on vacation...approximately 1500 miles away...and my last paycheck bounced. My roommate worked there too; I called her when I realized I didn't have the funds I thought I did. She said "Hey, we all knew Owner X liked the dog track...we just didn't know he spent money he owed the IRS there." Combination of gambling addiction and not paying the IRS. Apparently two days after I left, the doors were locked, a sign that was posted said "Closed by order of the IRS" and every employee had their paycheck bounce because the IRS had siezed all accounts.

                                  I got home okay, but we had to scrounge the floor of the car for change so we could gas up about 50 miles from home...

                                2. -----

                                  The restaurants I am familiar with die because of either rent issues or food cost issues.

                                  We had a booming pizza place shutdown because it was obvious they had no clue as to cheese costs. It is a no-brainer to have a $9.95, 14" pizza with 2 pounds of real mozzarella to see a huge food cost-loss issue. Heck it would still be at a loss at $19.95...

                                  -----

                                  1. On the flip side, we can all think of a few restaurants in horrible locations but they are so good we will do whatever it takes to get there; pickpockets and paucity of parking be damned. Some spots in South Philly, Bridgeport, New Haven, and the north end in Boston come to mind. I think Chowhound is a wonderful conduit to enable GOOD restaurants almost anywhere to more quickly achieve the critical level of awareness and patronage necessary for success.

                                    2 Replies
                                    1. re: Veggo

                                      i can't speak for the other neighborhoods, but boston's north end hardly qualifies as a terrible location. it's within easy walking distance of 3 different t-lines and 3 different t-stations. several parking garages, if you insist on driving. it's got dozens of restaurants, cafes, specialty food shops, authentic butchers and bakeries cheek-by-jowl, historical buildings and lore, as well as incredibly colorful locals.

                                      it's also one of our safest neighborhoods as far as petty crime.

                                      1. re: hotoynoodle

                                        You rightfully have pride in your neighborhood, but there are moments in the North End, what with all the "private" parking lots, when parking a Pontiac is more painful than giving birth to a Buick. Many times I can't find an illegal space; they're all taken.

                                    2. I have found that here in NY, a restaurant that has really good food, and good service, in a price range appropriate for that kind of restaurant will always do well.

                                      There are four restaurants that recently opened here, all within a two block area. One is always crowded, has wonderful food, good service, the others are always empty. Word of mouth gets around very fast.