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Restaurants struggle in uncertain times


I wouldn’t want to have a restaurant these days. Times are tough for them. Everywhere, I hear anecdotes about the hoops they’re jumping through to try to stay open — if they do stay open.

The other day I got approached by the P.R. people for The Fifth Floor, the ultra-chic San Francisco restaurant you used to have to wait forever to get reservations for. They’re now selling something called “Sommelier for a Day.” For $250 per, you get to “shadow” their Master Sommelier, Emily Wines, learning the ropes alongside her, working the dining room floor, and then, afterward, have dinner with Emily, with wines she herself chooses. (I’m not putting this down at all, and may even do it myself. It’s a great idea and sounds like a lot of fun.) I’m pointing it out to show the lengths to which restaurants are going, in order to increase revenues, get publicity, or otherwise keep things going until this economy turns around.

Then, right after I got off the phone with The Fifth Floor’s P.R. person, I came across this article from the Associated Press about a Washington State restaurant, in the heart of Walla Walla’s wine country, whose owner decided to close its doors the very same day that Gourmet Magazine gave him a glowing review. “The recession just squeezed us so much we couldn’t do it, and we had a huge space for that type of restaurant,” the owner said, in words being echoed everywhere. He added, “It’s probably going to take us two years to recover. Financially and emotionally, it devastated us.”

It’s not just here in the U.S. that upscale restaurants are closing. “Many of the best restaurants in France are being forced to tighten their belts and lower prices as recession eats into their profits,” the BBC reported yesterday.

One tactic more and more restaurants are turning to is to allow, or ease up on, their BYOB policies. A P.R. person (not the same one who called me about The Fifth Floor) recently pitched a story to me about how “more restaurants are allowing BYO. My understanding is that it’s…now becoming more welcome (to allow BYO wine).” [I’m quoting from her email to me.] A firm she told me about,, “surveyed more than 50,000 restaurants in the 10 major markets, and of those more than 15,000 allow BYO Wine.” She called this trend “another sales angle…for restaurants seeking methods to spark business during tough economic times.” (You might check out the goBYO website. It’s pretty cool.)

Here in Oakland, some longtime favorites, like JoJo’s, closed their doors, and in San Francisco, in March alone, “two neighborhood Thai spots, a vodka bar offering over a hundred different vodkas on Belden Place, a relatively short-lived Hawaiian place in a Japantown mall, and Bong Su, a glamorous upscale Vietnamese restaurant,” all closed, according to the SF I went to Bong Su’s glamorous opening a few years ago, when times were flush, and it looked to be a keeper, in its fancy new South of Market digs. But it wasn’t…

In New York City, New York magazine recently ran an interview with a guy named Steve Kamali, a restaurant broker. The headline: “Why Three-Star Dining Is Dead.” The article said “Close to 100 substantial restaurants have already closed in 2009” in The Big Apple. Kamali said, “I do think that we’re going to continue to see closures all across the country, not just in New York.” One of the shuttered N.Y. eateries, Fleur de Sel, was Michelin-starred. It had a 55-page wine list and offered a three-course prix-fixe for $76. The online business management journal, bnet, wrote that, as bad as things are for U.S. restaurants, “it’s even worse in California and Florida,” and not just for fancy places. “The 707-unit smoothie chain Jamba Juice, based in Emeryville, Calif., recently outlined struggles in its core market of California,” bnet reported.

Bad news for foodies, but maybe the silver lining is that those places that do stay open will be more affordable and offer better deals.

Mea culpa: I have since found out that Fifth Floor has offered the Sommelier for a Day program since 2005.

  1. Steve sez, “Bad news for foodies, but maybe the silver lining is that those places that do stay open will be more affordable and offer better deals.”

    Perhaps we will see fewer ‘grocery store’ wine lists with their 300% mark ups?

  2. Ray: Yay! Fewer grocery story lists, more local wines, is what I say.

  3. Jacob Crenshaw’s words are tragic ones. It is emotional devastation as much as it is financial. I’ve met few restaurant owners in my lifetime that didn’t consider their work an extension of their identity and member of their family. When it comes to silver linings, it will have to be the fact that it wasn’t a fault in the restaurant but the timing.

  4. I’d pay $300 to hang out with her for a day…

  5. It is a shame, and a reality, that in times like these, good people, and good businesses, will be hurt. Times are tough down here in the Santa Barbara area, and some restaurants have folded, while others have cut back to dinner only or gone dark a few days a week.

    BYOB will certainly help, as well good old customer service. The restaurants here that appear to be doing okay are those that are customer friendly, and go out of their way to make sure their diners have an ‘above average’ experience every time they make it in.

    I think we should ALL emulate this behavior in ALL of our business dealings . . .


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