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.