One of the more poignant moments of the annual Academy Awards ceremony is the brief montage paying tribute to the cinema luminaries and behind-the-scenes talents who had died since the previous Oscars telecast. For a written version of that heartstrings-tugging montage, I list the names of a few famous restaurants that slipped away from us in 2011: Benton's Prime Steakhouse, Skies, the Peppercorn Duck Club, Café Seed, Napoleon Bakery, Patrikio's Mexican Restaurant (which died a slow and terrible death after being a fixture in south KC for decades), Muddy's Coffeehouse, and the beloved original Peachtree Buffet on Eastwood Trafficway.
People watching an Oscars-like tribute would inappropriately applaud individually for those restaurants as their images flashed on the screen. But several new restaurants came and went as well — very quickly. It seems that before the final customers had even settled their bills, the closed sign was already posted on the front door. This list includes B-2: A Burger Boutique in Lee's Summit; the Graffiti Grill; Café Roux; Pizza Oven; Gavino's Mexican Restaurant; Family Table in Bonner Springs; Los Cabos Mexican Restaurant in Leawood (a few months after the location at the Legends in Wyandotte County bit the dust); El Maguey on 54th Street; the Addis Ababa Café at 11th Street and Oak; the Taco Factory (both the Waldo and UMKC locations); and the promising but short-lived downtown jazz joint with a kitchen, 1911 Main, which closed last week.
Hey, no one ever said the restaurant business — even in the best economy — was easy. But this isn't the best economy, and many restaurants that were barely hanging on, or were undercapitalized from the start, found themselves out of business in a matter of months. "It's the survival of the fittest out there," one local developer says. "If someone opens a restaurant and serves great food but doesn't understand the business side — the marketing, the unexpected costs — it's a doomed proposition."
Unexpected costs include new city licensing fees as well as the impact of new competition. One midtown Chinese buffet — unassuming but long popular for its cheap prices — has suffered a serious financial hit from a newer, even cheaper buffet that opened just a few blocks away. "Food quality isn't so important right now," says the older buffet's landlord. "If a buffet is new, shiny and offers lots of choices for a very low price, that's what people want."
Chris Youngers, the co-owner of Café Trio on the Country Club Plaza, repeats what many other local restaurant operators are saying: This wasn't a great year, but 2011 was an improvement over 2010. "There's still some softness out there, especially in terms of the frequency that our regular customers dine with us," Youngers tells me. "We have good months and bad months."
"People have been eating out less or not at all," says Greg Patterson, a commercial real-estate agent who lost several restaurant tenants in 2011, including the short-lived Amor Picante, the Latin American bistro opened by synthetic-pot mogul Micah Riggs at 900 West 39th Street. It was Patterson's third tenant in the space in three years. "I'd say that 2011 was, mostly, a bad year for restaurants in Kansas City."
Many local restaurateurs say the dining economy here has yet to bounce back from the annus horribilis of 2008, when a triple whammy hit the area: (1) The economy plunged into recession; (2) the Power & Light District opened in downtown Kansas City ("It affected more bar business than food sales," says one restaurant owner, echoing a familiar mantra, "but it has still taken business away from a lot of us"); and (3) the smoking ban became a reality.
"Those things did make an impact," says Buddy Lahl, president of the Greater Kansas City Chapter of the Missouri Restaurant Association and regional director of Treat America Food Services. "The economy has probably had the greatest impact. Food costs are rising, the minimum wage increased, and it's harder and harder for restaurants to squeeze a profit margin. It also hasn't helped that our convention business has fallen off. Every convention that we lose, Kansas City restaurants lose thousands of potential customers.
"Many of our patrons no longer have the disposable income to pay $50 to $100 for a dinner out," Lahl adds. "On one end of the spectrum, customers who used to eat at Applebee's are now eating at McDonald's or Sonic. And the high-end restaurants, in order to keep customers happy, can't raise prices. They might have to reduce portion size or offer less elaborate menus. It's all about adapting."
Adapting has also meant paying closer attention to customer service. "There was much less job turnover in local restaurants in 2011," Lahl says. "Servers are realizing that if they have a good job, they're staying. And restaurant owners realize they need trained, seasoned servers."
For some restaurant owners, putting more emphasis on good customer service has been a lifesaver. "I nearly lost my restaurant 10 times over in 2010," says Beth Barden, who owns Succotash. She knows that Succotash has always had a reputation for hip-looking but occasionally lackadaisical servers. "I had always been someone who believed that you didn't need a lifetime of restaurant experience to work for me. I mean, you have to give people their first job. But that ideology wasn't always the best for me. I realized that I needed the right balance of veteran servers and first-timers to effectively give our customers the attention they needed."
It's true that good service, like good food and the perception of a good value, is a winning idea for restaurants today, but in this market there's yet another issue. "Kansas City is saturated with restaurants right now," Patterson says. "In fact, we have one of the most oversaturated restaurant markets in the country."
"That's true, to a degree," Lahl says. Especially, he points out, "if you think of the number of restaurant choices between Zona Rosa south to 119th Street and Metcalf." He adds: "What's changing is that many diners today aren't traveling as far to go to a restaurant. They're eating in their own neighborhoods."
That theory might be considered a negative for dining destinations that historically have lured patrons from all over the metro. But 2011 was an upbeat year for the Plaza, which added two high-profile chain restaurants, the Florida-based Darden Restaurants' upscale Seasons 52 and Coal Vines Pizza Wine Bar, and two independently operated concepts, Zócalo Mexican Cuisine & Tequileria and the new gastropub Gram & Dun (created by Urban Table and BRGR operator Alan Gaylin).
Does that mini boom bode well for 2012? Lahl says he's cautiously optimistic.
"The economic difficulties of the last few years have really brought the restaurant community closer together," he says. "We're all working together more now than I've ever seen before, sharing ideas and creating solutions for problems. If that trend continues, I think 2012 could be a very good year."
I'm happy to say that 2011 — for me, anyway — was not the year that I found myself substituting Sonic for Applebee's. In fact, I didn't eat at either of those restaurants in the last 12 months. But even I didn't dine out as frequently as I did in 2010 — I was considerably more frugal in my personal dining choices. Perhaps too frugal because I regret not taking one last spin through the Ultra Chocolatta Bar at the Peppercorn Duck Club or having one last slice of Sky-High Pie while watching the city skyline rotate around me at Skies.
Who knew, at the beginning of 2011, that places I had assumed would always be here would soon close forever? That's why my goal for 2012 is to make frequent visits to all of the restaurants that I love and don't want to lose. So please excuse me while I step out for a minute. A hot cinnamon roll and a bowl of cottage fries are waiting for me at Stroud's.