Published : Wednesday, October 2, 2019 | 5:03 AM
When eight major restaurants close in your city, that’s a matter for concern. When those eight have closed just since August, it’s time to take things up a notch.
Or so believes Paul Little, President and CEO of Pasadena’s Chamber of Commerce, who recently wrote City Hall to express alarm at the rash of recent closures shaking the local restaurant landscape.
“The reasons for these closings are varied, but almost all occurred because it was not financially viable for them to continue,” wrote Little. “I wonder if there aren’t measures the City of Pasadena can consider to offset some of the costs to locally-owned restaurants and retailers before we see too much more attrition.”
Slaw Dogs, Big Mama’s Rib Shack, POP Champagne Bar and Restaurant, Vertical Wine Bistro, Central Grille, Meat District Company, Braise and Crumble, Robin’s Wood Fire BBB have joined earlier 2019 departures such as Maison Akir, Cafe Bizou, Deluxe 1717, Poutine, and still others, during what has been an annus horribilis for restaurants in Pasadena, according to Little.
“The word among the restaurateurs is, ‘So who’s next week?’” said Little. “But the point is not just that restaurants are closing, but who is closing. And if they are locally owned or not.”
The City Manager’s newsletter conceded the importance of restaurants to Pasadena’s quality of life and economy. It said that increased competition from within and without the city is part of that dynamic.
“However,” it noted, “Pasadena has also experienced an uptick in new food establishments with smaller footprints and a larger emphasis on takeout. Kitchen United for example, provides several new food take out options at a shared counter and houses even more restaurants that prep favorite dishes for delivery only.”
And therein lies the problem, as far as the Chamber’s Little is concerned.
Kitchen United is a “space sharing” concept, which is a different animal than a traditional restaurant.
Meanwhile, Ruth Chris, Fleming’s Steakhouse and some other larger eateries benefiting from corporate deep pockets accumulating in coffers beyond Pasadena, are surviving.
It’s homegrown businesses that Little is concerned about.
“Big Mamas, Vertical Wine Bistro, Pop Champagne,” said Little, “those places have been open for quite awhile. These aren’t restaurants that people sort of opened on a whim thinking, you know, my grandma’s hamburger recipe is the best in the world, and everyone’s going to flock to here and buy it. These are people who’ve been in business for a long time who just couldn’t keep going.”
Little said they are multiple. Labor costs – yes, the minimum wage ordinance – rising rents, higher sales tax, while beyond Pasadena, food prices go up as they always have.
“I could suggest things to the City,” said Little, “but we asked them to take a look internally and see if there’s something they can’t do to make it a little less expensive, maybe. If the City can forgo something. Are they willing to change fees for this, that, or the other thing?”
Local restaurateur Gregg Smith shared Little’s concerns for the Pasadena hometown eatery.
“The independent operators in Pasadena added local flavor, local ambiance,” Smith explained. “The owners were present and they knew all of the guests. And these are fine dining [and] better dining restaurants that were individually owned by Pasadenans. It’s a shame to lose those to the chains, which are very generic.”
Among the practical impacts of ceding eatery territory to corporate entities with distant headquarters, said Smith, is a loss in community giving.
“The independent restaurateurs are the ones that support the nonprofits in town,” he said. “We’re all in the same boat. We get stacks of requests for donations from the nonprofits.”
Though Smith didn’t say it, the company he operates with his brother Bob responds to many of those requests. Smith Brothers is a significant supporter of numerous Pasadena nonprofits.
Eric Duyshart, economic development manager, City of Pasadena, was more sanguine about the situation, suggesting that those departing restaurants will with new restaurants in the near future.
“Along with having so many restaurants is the fact that we do get turnover,” he explained, “as the marketplace pursues new formats and different opportunities to satisfy customer demand.”
Some restaurateurs, Duyshart said, see closing up more in terms of retirement or cashing out on their business. Sometimes the size of facility may be too large for the business it is housing.
“There isn’t any one particular reason for these business closures,” he said. “Other than that, we do have other ones queuing up for openings and we wish them, you know, great success.”