Burning Question: How Does It Affect Restaurants When A Nearby Competitor Shuts Down?

Scene, 62 Main, The Club, Nove Italiano, Metro Grill, Sushi on McKinney, Martini Park, Brothers..

The roll call of restaurant closings throughout this embattled year makes 2008 sound like a culinary Iwo Jima. We can almost picture John Wayne poised on the black volcanic sands, reading off the names: Bice? Didn't make it. Riccardi's? Not that The Duke survived, either--not that particular film.

"The stench of death," as Nick Badovinus of Neighborhood Services puts it (sounding very much like the Kilgore character in another fictional war), "is never pleasant."

Of course, if you just accept the stench as part of the natural odor of things...sorry. So in a year that left 60 unpleasant carcasses of Dallas restaurants in its wake, it seems appropriate to ask: how do restaurants cope when a neighboring place shuts down?

"You see empty tables and it makes you nervous," says Andrew Witt, general manager of Steel, recalling the day when The Club keeled over just a few steps away. "This winter has been tough--more than usual."

Even in boom times restaurants open and close. It's a competitive business, dependent upon whim and whatever happens to be trendy at the moment as much as a particular chef's prowess in the kitchen. "Markets are driven by emotion more than anything else," Badovinus points out. When the dining public perceives one part of town--Deep Ellum, say, or Victory--to be on the outs, foot traffic slows dramatically. "It becomes easy to be skeptical" about a cluster of restaurants, he continues. "Jade and skepticism are the enemies of this business."

But this year problems hit restaurants in popular districts, as well. Pulcinella on bustling Henderson Avenue disappeared, for example, as did Metro Grill on the Knox side of things. When something like that occurs, says Randy Morgan, chef of downtown's acclaimed Dallas Fish Market, you can only "focus on what we're going to do to keep going."

Besides, he explains, in good times and bad, restaurants "close down because they're not doing something right."

The loss of traffic troubles both chefs and owners more than anything else. "I would like to think it would increase volume," says Joel Harloff of Dali Wine Bar, reflecting on the idea that closings decrease competition, causing more people to seek out your restaurant. "But in reality it takes people away from the area." That's why he appreciates the vibe of One Arts Plaza: diners leaving Tei An or Screen Door look across the way and think "oh, hey--we gotta try Dali."

Badovinus compares it to the old rising tide lifts all boats cliche. And when one happens to capsize, "it creates an uneasiness."

So, in answer to this week's Burning Question, surviving restaurants redouble their effort to, as Morgan puts it, "get people to believe in what we're doing." In other words, they look around, feel a pinch of fear, and hope they've built enough loyalty to live until another restaurateur buys the vacant space.

Otherwise, they too must bail.
--Dave Faries

 


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