When I describe what sort of food writing I do, I tend to joke that it’s a tough job having to visit new restaurants, but someone’s got to do it. The truth is I’m very fortunate that I’m able to write about food professionally, but it’s also true that because I’m always looking for new places to report on, I don’t get to revisit places I’ve enjoyed as much as I’d like.
For the last several years I’ve spoken with restaurateurs about the number of new restaurants opening, and whether our market can continue to support both new and long-established places. For the most part, the responses from restaurateurs who’ve been around for a number of years have ranged from skeptical to downright pessimistic.
This is not the venue for a discussion about gentrification, but as people and businesses move into neighborhoods that were once considered affordable, rents increase along with property values.
My guess is the number of new restaurants has outpaced the number of potential customers for those restaurants, even when you factor in the number of places that have closed. When a new restaurant opens, it tends to see a flurry of diners who are interested in novelty. I’m not judging; I’m one of those people.
From an existing restaurant’s perspective, that means fewer diners in seats, and thus a decrease in revenue. Each time a new restaurant opens, it hires staff, meaning there’s not only competition for customers, but for workers as well, and while I haven’t done any research, I also suspect that means workers can demand higher wages.
The restaurant business is tough, and most operations have pretty slim margins. So while pretty much everyone I’ve spoken to loves the increase in dining options on a personal level, from a business perspective, having more competition is worrisome.
Noodle & Pie was on the forefront of the local wave of ramen restaurants. My son and I loved it, and my wife and I dined there a number of times. Primitivo was an ambitious place that opened on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard early in that street’s renaissance. I ate there for lunch fairly regularly, but I haven’t been in several months. I will miss everything about the place, but particularly the tripe cooked in a spicy tomato sauce and topped with cheese. That humble dish was one of the best things I’ve ever had in a restaurant.
When a restaurant I like closes, I feel a sense of sadness, of course, but I also tend to feel a sense of guilt. I know that’s not a rational feeling, because it’s not as though my patronage is enough to keep a place in business, but still… When I return to a restaurant after six months or a year, I feel compelled to excuse the length of time since my last visit by explaining how my writing requires me to check out new places. Again, this is irrational, and no restaurateur is shooting me accusing looks when I come in the door; I’m just neurotic in that way.
I have a feeling that I’m going to be experiencing those feelings more often in the coming months. I am looking forward to several restaurants that will open this year, and professionally, the more the merrier. I also certainly don’t want to give the impression that I think new restaurants shouldn’t open; who the hell am I to tell someone they can’t start a business? Hell, some of the restaurants I enjoy the most at the moment have opened in the last 12 months.
I hope my sense of foreboding is unwarranted, and that we don’t see a wave of closings. I’d be interested to hear from you, whether you’re in the industry or not, on the topic. If you are a restaurateur, where do you see the market going in the next year? If you work at a restaurant, have you seen any financial benefit from the competition for your services? If you dine out, are there any places you fear are not doing well, or that you’d particularly miss if they closed?
I’ll keep asking those questions in person, and will undoubtedly follow up on the topic at a later date.
Until then, have you heard about the new place opening on … ?