For all the talk I do in this space about new restaurants opening and the growth of our food scene, the area has taken a beating lately when it comes to the number of restaurants that have shut their doors for good. The big story around town this week has been the formal announcement that Leoci's Trattoria will not reopen at 606 Abercorn St. The space had been shut down since late November with a sign on the door saying it would reopen. It will not. You can read that full story, if you wish, on my website.
In the meantime, Savannahians are trying to wrap their heads around how many restaurants have gone under in the last few weeks.
A few weeks ago, I reported that Juarez Mexican Restaurant at Broughton and Price was closed for good. While most people who frequented there weren't surprised, it was still a shock to a number of people, including employees.
"We closed early on Christmas Eve," one former employee told me. "We were then closed Christmas Day. We thought we were going back to work on the 26th, but we found out that morning we didn't have jobs to return to."
Add to that a list of others - including Liberty Street Grill, Papillote on Broughton Street, 32 Degrees Midtown Grille & Ale House on the Southside, La Xalapena on Skidaway Road and Maxwell's on Jefferson - that all have shut their doors. In the case of Maxwell's, their building was sold, so they decided to move to 9 Drayton St., the space formerly occupied by Z2, the Zunzi's takeout spin-off which is now gone.
9 Drayton, as it will be called, doesn't have any signage up yet, but they are there. Trust me. I walked by the other night and saw a full house. I will be paying them a visit soon.
I find it interesting: As competitive as it can get out there for your dining dollar, there is not a restaurant owner I have spoken to who hasn't told me they hate to see other restaurants close. They all know how tough a business it is and the kind of dedication it takes to make it all work. Seeing a peer fail is never fun.
"There has been more turnover or closings in Savannah over the last couple of weeks since I've lived in Savannah," says Brian Huskey, owner of the Gaslight Group, which operates three restaurants and a bar in Savannah. "Whenever stuff like this happens, it happens after Christmas because that's when all of your bills come in. You've got your $5,000 5 liquor, beer, wine permit that you have to pay for. Your taxes are due at the end of the month.
"This is a good time to do your checks and balances and decide if you want go on longer."
There can be 1,000 reasons why these places close. Obviously not enough business to keep the lights on is probably the most popular. Take 520 Wings on Whitaker Street, for example. There was plenty of business there, but the tenant and owner mutually agreed to part ways. 520 Wings' original spot at Bull and Victory is still open and thriving, but the Whitaker spot is closed.
Sometimes the food is good enough, but spaces struggle to effectively get the word out. Other times, restaurantuers are under-funded to begin with. I was once told the most common reason why a spot doesn't make it is a lack of enough money before they even open their doors. Many times a tenant will get a few months of free rent in exchange for some renovations. They take the deal because they believe their food will be so good that they will be making enough money to stay afloat by the time that rent payment kicks in a few months later. If their following is slow in developing, all of a sudden they have a rent payment, likely in the thousands, to deal with. The entire thing collapses. I've seen it happen. Rents around here aren't cheap. My goodness, are they not cheap.
Add to all of that the fact that the number of spots opening around town is going through the roof. And there are more to come. We talk about that here almost every week. With more competition comes a need to get by with a shrinking piece of the pie. Like any other industry, some do it well. Others, not so much. That creates the turnover.
At the end of the day, and this may sound horrible, but these developments aren't necessarily a bad thing for Savannah as a whole.
I think it fair to say that most of us want to see our city's food scene continue to grow. As it does, places that aren't drawing enough customers are going to weed themselves out. We are absolutely seeing an uptick in the number of people willing to pay for quality, whether that's a $16 burger or a $48 steak. You can count on the number of places around here serving items like that to go up. Personally? I'm lovin' it.
We like to compare our food scene to Charleston time and again. And no, we aren't close to there yet. However, if you take a walk through that city looking for a great meal, more times than not, you will find one. Why? Because if someone isn't up to snuff with their neighbors, then they likely won't be around for long.
See you on TV,