15 Sep 2014
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Doors Close, Others Open in Poway's Dog-Eat-Dog Restaurant Trade

A tough economy is making it even more difficult for independent restaurants to survive, but that hasn't stopped would-be entrepreneurs from trying.

Doors Close, Others Open in Poway's Dog-Eat-Dog Restaurant Trade Doors Close, Others Open in Poway's Dog-Eat-Dog Restaurant Trade

It takes a lot of work, surviving the restaurant trade, especially for independent owners.

Many would-be entrepreneurs dream of running their own bistros, but few are successful—a fact of life that accounts for the steady openings and closings of so many eateries in a community as small as Poway over the past year.

The city’s suffered a number of closures in that period, including the Cin Cin Italian-themed restaurant and bar on Pomerado Road and House on the Hill off Poway Road.

Luanne Hulsizer, president and CEO of the , said the poor economy has forced out owners who lack good business skills.

“Of all the industries, they have been hit the worst; there has been a huge churn in the last year,” Hulsizer said. “I admire those restaurants that have been able to sustain themselves because obviously that means they have strong business practices, especially in marketing.”

Phil Spear, owner of on Midland Road, said survival comes down to business skills, and staying focused on those skills, as well as a few principles of operating a restaurant.

He said many independent restaurateurs pay last month’s bills with this month’s receipts without sufficient reserves to cover their overhead when they suffer a slow sales month.

“All of a sudden, they’re chasing their tails,” Spear said. “When sales go down, they get even further behind.

“I am very conservative. I always have enough money in the bank to pay my bills, even if I closed the doors tomorrow.”

A slowdown in business will also prompt struggling restaurateurs to cut costs, which often means cutting quality, he adds, which can further lead to erosion in the business.

“They start cutting costs in the wrong way, and that just leads to a downward spiral,” he said. “But it’s very tempting to do at times.”

He said the large failure of restaurants, not just in Poway but everywhere, is partly the result of rising prices, especially commodities, over the past nine months. For example, he notes that the price of coffee has jumped 90 cents a pound in the last few months.

“You’ve got two choices to make: accept a narrower bottom line or raise your prices,” he said.

Jaye Leatherman, owner of on Midway Road, would agree with Hulsizer and Spear about having good business acumen.

Leatherman said she feels that marketing has been her weakness. She’s had her popular coffee shop up for sale since January, despite five-star reviews from customers on such sites as Yelp.

A mechanical engineer by training, Leatherman said taking on the role of an entrepreneur has been challenging, and she feels she’s struggled as a businessperson.

As a result, she’s lost some enthusiasm that she had when she made the purchase.

She says business is “not bad,” and even notes, “It goes up a little bit each month.”

“We’ve had some come look at it, but it's a slow process, because they have to do their due diligence,” she adds. “We don’t have anyone who has made an offer yet.”

“Some of the restaurants that closed were challenged before the economy made a change” said the chamber's Hulsizer, adding, “Unfortunately, a lot of restaurant owners are quite embedded in their work, so they are unable to go back and revisit their business plans, or pursue more education, such as classes offer by Score (Senior Corps of Retired Executives.) They are unable to keep themselves fresh and out there.”

She said those restaurateurs who have been in business for many years, and who have weathered earlier economic storms, have learned how to survive.

Meanwhile, while one door closes, another door opens—in the local restaurant business that is. There are always entrepreneurs willing to give it a go, even in tough times.

Allison Johnson, who purchased the Beach Grass Café after moving to the area last year from Seattle, has changed the name to "." She’s given the interior a facelift and freshened up the menu by hiring two new cooks.

She loved the place as a customer. “It really had a good vibe, and I really liked the food—most of the time,” she says. “I thought this restaurant has all of the makings of being a great restaurant.”

“It came up for sale—the previous owner never got out here to take care of it, so I ended up buying it.”

Existing customers have been happy with the change, and Johnson says business is slowly improving.

But she points out marketing is her big challenge.

“It’s a challenge,” she says. “We’re growing because of all the changes that we’ve done, but I feel like we should be growing faster.”

Meanwhile, the opened for business June 30 in the Poway City Centre shopping mall on Poway Road in a spot previously occupied by the Miami Grille.

Owner Peter Green says he’s attempting a “gastro pub,” which has become trendy in recent years.

Green has a leg up on the competition in that he owned and operated a neighborhood pub in Del Mar before going into corporate event planning in the mid-1990s.

But he says he wanted to return to the business, and he’s been able to do so.

He says the down economy is a good time, as he prefers to look at “the glass as half full.”

“I feel that in my own small way, I am helping to stimulate the economy,” he says. “Because of the huge failure rate of so many restaurants, there is good staff available, and because the economy is down a bit, landlords are willing to talk to independent guys unlike when the economy is doing well and they only want to talk to chains.

“I had some experience, and I had a plan,” Green says.

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