Wolfgang PuckRobert Sietsema, Gourmet Live guest blogger
Though we often hear about restaurants opening, we rarely take notice when they close. Maybe it's because they make such a commotion at the outset but often die a slow and agonizing death in silence. Or maybe it's because the reasons for closing are so poorly understood. Was the location cursed? Was the place undercapitalized? Did the service fall short, or was the menu just plain wrong for the neighborhood? Little research exists to answer these questions, but usually when restaurants fail, everyone wants to get as far away as possible. But one things for sure: When the titans of chefdom fall, they fall hard.
1. Spago, Chicago
Fifteen years ago, Wolfgang Puck's organization marched eastward from L.A. like an invading army, plotting the takeover of the country with his premium Spago brand of fine dining restaurants. But while he's made it in Vail and Vegas, the Windy City proved too tough a nut to crack, and Spago Chicago shuttered after seven years, despite a talented chef and management provided by Puck's own daughter. Was California cuisine too delicate and vegetable-driven for Chicago's big appetites? Or was something less well defined wrong with the formula once it crossed the Great Divide?
2. Soul Daddy, Minneapolis, L.A., and New York City
An exception to this rule was the recent spectacular closing of Soul Daddy, a short-lived fast-food chain with branches in Minneapolis, L.A., and New York City. It had been chosen as the winner of a Bobby Flay reality show, America's Next Great Restaurant, beating out 20 challengers with a menu featuring soul food made healthier. The chain was capitalized to the tune of about $3 million, from a set of backers that included the Chipotle chain and Flay himself, and opened the day after winner Jamawn Woods' victory. Justifying the judges' choice, Flay crowed: "A passion for food, a solid work ethic, good business sense, and delicious meals are what the investors were searching for on this series." And though the TV show generated lots of early enthusiasm for the restaurants (New York Eater reported the "12:30 p.m. lunchtime crowd was 20-30 people deep"), the Big Apple and L.A. branches closed within two months. That last location: Minneapolis' Mall of America. It, too, abruptly closed two weeks later.
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So what went wrong? According to restaurant consultant Clark Wolf of Clark Wolf Associates, the problem-indeed the problem in most restaurant failures-is capital. Of the seed money, he scoffed, "That's barely enough for one location, in a start-up. Do one and make it work." According to Brandon Barton, a restaurant consultant for Avero, a company that analyzes the financial performance of restaurants, "Soul food is a hard sell in all but a few Manhattan neighborhoods."
3. Cena, New York City
Indeed, with its high real estate costs and stiff competition, Gotham can be considered the country's foremost graveyard of promising restaurants, daunting some of the world's most famous chefs. In 1998, when Montreal's Normand Laprise debuted an establishment called Cena, it so thrilled New York Times critic Ruth Reichl that she wrote, "This is wonderful food," and awarded it three stars. Cena crashed the next year. Somewhat ironically, Montreal-inspired fare has become commonplace in the city a decade later, at restaurants such as Fedora, Mile End, and M. Wells-though, after a little over a year, that obscurely located hipster diner went down in flames after a massive rent increase, just as Bon Appétit had named it one of America's ten best restaurants. Still, maybe it's time for Normand Laprise to make a triumphant return.
4. Rocco's, New York City
In 2003, Rocco DiSpirito stood at the height of his fame. He'd helmed the kitchen of New York's three-star Union Pacific, and made an Amex commercial in which he claimed that 90 percent of all restaurants close within the first year, implying that he had handily beaten the odds. (Reality check: According to professor H. G. Parsa, of the University of Central Florida, the figure is more like 60 percent in the first three years.) Soon after, with the backing of restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow, who himself had suffered a string of well-publicized failures (including the recent closing of one of his most popular restaurants, NYC's Asia de Cuba), DiSpirito opened an Italian-American restaurant that bore his own name. Rocco's on 22nd Street, too, was the subject of a popular reality show. It was called The Restaurant, and costarred DeSpirito's Italian mom, who ostentatiously made meatballs and flirted with customers.
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Rocco's garnered "meh" reviews from critics, and the next year, a series of highly publicized disputes between DiSpirito and Chodorow served as a plot device for the second season of the show. While many viewers assumed the ongoing battle was trumped up for dramatic purposes, it turned out to be all too real; the restaurant closed soon after the second season wrapped.
5. Alain Ducasse, New York City
Add to the list Alain Ducasse, a French three-star chef who came to Manhattan in 2000 and opened a restaurant so effete, he gave his well-heeled guests-who were willing to pay in excess of $300 for a meal-a choice of fine silverware, and provided special footstools for ladies to rest their handbags on. (At least Ducasse has an excuse-as a tourist-dependent establishment, the restaurant Alain Ducasse suffered disproportionately from the 9/11 attacks and subsequent severe economic downturn.)
6. Table 8, Los Angeles
And Govind Armstrong, a vaunted Los Angeles chef who opened a branch of his Table 8 in the new Cooper Square Hotel, only to have it close within a year. According to Wolf, "Govind was a bit arrogant, got smacked by the economy, and didn't know-as others have discovered-that L.A. doesn't translate well to most anywhere else."
7. L'Impero, Alto, and Scarpetta, all in Manhattan
Next up in the same hotel space was Scott Conant, a homegrown New York chef who had enjoyed a stunning string of successes in various parts of Manhattan that included L'Impero, Alto, and Scarpetta. After less than one year, he was also out on his ear, telling the Times' Florence Fabricant that the management of the restaurant had decided to make a go of the space without any celebrity chef at all.
So is celebrity chefdom doomed? Maybe not. Going down in flames is an experience that every person who achieves celebrity chef status has experienced at one time or another. According to Wolf, "Every top chef has had a bomb or two." And Barton chimes in, "Overall, to me, a chef's drive and passion will keep him up no matter how many times he is knocked down."
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