Before my wife and I introduced small children to the world, we actually enjoyed eating at restaurants that use metal silverware. Obviously, we cannot take our almost 4-year-old in public, so we’ve been relegated to places that combine cooked food with jungle gyms.
My wife and I actually met at what we considered one of the best restaurants in the area. Over a cocktail and nervous sweats, I sat at a table in the old Stella Sola restaurant on Studewood and tried to convince this beautiful lady to give me one more date.
A couple of months later, my future wife introduced me to my future mother-in-law. We dined at Stella Sola.
And about a week after Meghan and I were married, Stella Sola closed.
I’ve always wondered why good restaurants that serve great food and have excellent service have a tough time staying open. If you’re a “foodie,” whatever that means, you probably heard that Treadsack’s Hunky Dory and Bernadine’s, both on the budding corridor of North Shepherd, closed their doors for good this week because the ownership group filed for bankruptcy. This follows their closure of Foreign Correspondents and Canard late last year.
And then there was the long-ago neighbor of Stella Sola, Glass Wall, which closed a couple of weeks ago and said, in a statement, that they are going to reopen and “will offer the Heights a fresh concept that better reflects contemporary dining trends as well as the culinary preferences of Houston’s red-hot foodie community.”
There’s that word again: “Foodie.”
As mentioned, I’m not a food critic. But one of my jobs running a local newspaper is to watch what happens in our area of town and offer candid observations. And when I look at the budding restaurant scene in the Heights (and creeping quickly into Oak Forest and Garden Oaks), we should understand that a lot of bad is going to come with the delectable good.
In my quest to understand why good restaurants don’t make it, I reached out to a couple of people who know. I talked to Cecil and Janet Schmidt, who ran Triple A Restaurant for 15 years. I also called the Greater Houston Restaurant Association, which put me in touch with Jonathan Horowitz, the CEO of Legacy Restaurants, which includes Ninfa’s and Antone’s.
Both the Schmidts and Horowitz gave me almost identical answers when I asked why the restaurant business is so difficult: Just because a person can cook doesn’t mean he or she has any business opening a restaurant.
“Most people don’t understand how much money it takes to get a place open and to operate during the early years,” Horowitz said. “There are always unexpected delays and costs, which can sink a new operation very quickly.”
But what he said next was most potent: “Next would be the inability to run a business. Many people open restaurants before they have a true grasp of how to properly run a business. It’s not as easy as one might think,” he said.
Cecil Schmidt said his Triple A Restaurant needed 250 customers a day just to break even.
“People don’t realize that about 32 percent of your costs are in labor, 32 percent are in product, and then you have all the operating costs – the fixed costs – like rent,” he said. “It’s so expensive that you don’t have time to establish the restaurant.”
The closing of Triple A – almost a year ago today – was harrowing for local, loyal customers. But one good road construction project and a problem with the lease and a restaurant that had stood for nearly 75 years was shuttered. That’s probably what Horowitz meant when explaining why some great restaurants close.
“There [are] the elements of too much competition, bad luck and more bad luck,” he said. “Sometimes, it just doesn’t work.”
Here’s what concerns me most about the Heights trend as the new “foodie” capital of Houston. According to Horowitz, about half of all restaurants close before they’ve been open for five years. “Very few ever see 10 years,” he said.
As North Shepherd continues to tear down used car lots and replace them with concept restaurants that are chasing the “culinary preferences of Houston’s red-hot foodie community,” I’m concerned that we’re about to enter a period of constant turnover along our most important corridor.
No, we can’t stop a business from buying or leasing a plot of land, and we can’t stop the crave of farm-to-table restaurants that know how to plate a dish but don’t have a clue how to pay franchise taxes on time. But I don’t think we want to become the next Richmond Avenue or, in some cases, Washington Avenue. It is not going to help our community if one business opens and another closes every other week.
I love good food, and I’m pulling for good restaurants, but I think the folks at Glass Wall may have summed up what concerns me most when they said they want to shove some new culinary preferences on our plates.
Maybe the tender flat-iron steak is why we visited. Maybe some of these restaurants ought to pay attention to what their consumers want, rather than what CultureMap or Houston Press honors as the coolest chefs in the market. One person told me Hunky Dory and Bernadine’s got wonderful press even before they opened. They didn’t even make it two years.
I like to eat as much as the next person, but I hope the restaurants that choose our area of town are out to serve the families that live here and not the “foodies” and celebrity chefs who want to make a name for themselves. If they can cook a perfect risotto but can’t balance a checkbook, it’s going to turn our area of Houston into a shuffleboard of vacant buildings, and that’s no good for any of us.