Recession Taking a Toll on Local Eateries

The local restaurant carrousel continues to spin

Gajah Wong West, a Little Indonesia in the middle of Northside, opened its doors three years ago and will close them at the end of this summer. Rumor has it that Gajah is another casualty of the recession, joining other supposed economic casualties like Pigall’s, Kona Bistro, Edgecliff Bistro and Fresh, to name a few.

But ask Gajah’s owner Craig Congdon why he’s closing, and he doesn’t mention the recession. Instead, he says it’s hard to find Indonesian cooks, winters have always been slow and his heart is in Indonesia.

Congdon is moving to Bali with his Indonesian wife Rue to hopefully open an American cafe that he’s thinking of calling Rue’s Americana Inn, like Rick’s Café American in Casablanca. Perched on a hill in northern Bali overlooking the ocean, Rue’s will serve cheeseburgers and BLTs with turkey bacon for the Muslims, he says.

“There’s no pork there because Bali is primarily Hindu, and beef bacon doesn’t make a great BLT,” he says. “I want to make a really good BLT.”

Gajah is a good example of one of those restaurants that closes for many different reasons instead of one simple one. Sometimes you hear of restaurants closing for two-word reasons: “landlord issues,” “slow business” and lately “the recession.” But ask a restaurant owner, and you’ll usually get an answer that’s far more complicated and interesting than that.

Fresh, a downtown lunch place that once catered to busy professionals and served healthy fast food, shut its doors last November at the height of the recession mayhem. Owner Jon Dwight said the decision to close was three-fold.

“A main reason was that a significant portion of our market was cannibalized by Ingredients,” he says.

A chain owned by Starwood Hotels, Ingredients opened one street over in the Westin Hotel at Fountain Square and offered a similar concept with a budget the independent couldn’t compete with. Dwight found out a month before opening, but he took the risk anyway.

“We offered something unique,” he says. “Our food was very fresh. For instance, we made our salad dressings from scratch, but not everyone wants that. They’re used to having their dressing out of a bottle.”

Dwight says they saw their numbers drop after two years.

“I felt the economy was moving in the wrong direction,” he says. “Also, legal issues with the building owner and a forced sale of the building moved tenants out.”

A couple of months later, Oakley’s Kona Bistro shut its doors. Owner Tom Elliot says the recession definitely played a role in that decision.

“We saw business dropping off because of it,” he says. “We had the opportunity to renew our five-year lease, did some soul-searching and decided we’d focus on our location in Oxford. There were also some other issues. Like they were about ready to do a major renovation of (Oakley Square), which was going to be great, but it would have made the area tough to reach for about a year.”

The Oxford location continues to do as well as it did in 2008, a peak year.

Drew Hester, head of Greater Cincinnati Independents (GCI), a group that includes 36 popular local restaurants, says, “No one in our group is shutting down. The restaurants in the area that have been established for a while are getting through the recession. They have a loyal following. It’s the newer restaurants that may be the hardest hit.”

Surprisingly, the recession is not stopping new places from opening. In the last couple of months at least five new restaurants have opened in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. One, Troy’s Café in West Chester, seems to have opened because of it. Troy Meyer started planning the restaurant last December, the month the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that 533,000 jobs had been lost in November alone.

“We wanted to create something economical, fresh and friendly,” he says. “I could have recreated a Mesh, but I asked myself, ‘What would work in the space we have and the community we’re in?’ West Chester didn’t need another stuffy sit-down restaurant.”

Instead, he opened Troy’s Café, the ideal recession spot, where everything is under $9, including classic comfort food like spaghetti and meatballs and fish and chips. It’s the quintessential mom and pop restaurant. Meyer’s mom is front staff, his wife marketing and his dad facilities manager.

“At least, we call him that,” Meyer says. “Dad’s pretty handy.”

Meanwhile, Virgil’s Café in Bellevue opened its doors in March. With characteristic humor, owner Matthew Buschle says, “There’s no good reason why we opened. Three years ago, when we started planning, everything was going along swimmingly. You’ve got funding. You’ve worked out all that stuff. You can’t really go back and say, ‘Hey, I think I’m going to stop now.’ I really do believe there’s a certain amount of ‘ignorance is bliss’ in this. I don’t read newspapers. I don’t listen to the radio.”

The ignorance seems to be working. Recently, Virgil’s had a two-hour wait on both Friday and Saturday night.

Buschle has a theory about why people may keep going to restaurants even in a recession.

“The majority of consumers are so far removed from their food and food supply that they don’t have the wherewithal, time or energy to provide that for themselves on a daily basis,” he says.

Maybe eating out is no longer considered a luxury for everyone. For those who hate to cook, or don’t feel like they know how, it might be a necessity. After all, we have to eat.

Dwight, who’s also a restaurant consultant, says he would never open a restaurant in this economy.

“Especially if you’re on the luxury end, it’s the worst time since the Great Depression to open a restaurant in Cincinnati,” he says.

Even a restaurant on the casual end should give money back to investors instead of going through with it, Dwight says.

“Casual dining has been hit dramatically,” he says. “Even if people are going for comfort food, you can prepare those at home. The real question is, ‘Do people see the value in the convenience end of things?’ ”

That’s a difficult question for anyone to answer right now, but in some cases economics don’t seem to matter. Restaurants sometimes stay open even when they’re barely breaking even, and successful restaurants sometimes shut down because the owners get bored. Some restaurants are ventures of the heart, and the reasons for opening and closing them can be as complicated as the reasons for falling in and out of love.

Gajah Wong will continue to stay open for at least a few more months, offering its passion for Indonesia, rare cuisine and an outdoor bar and garden that is considered one of the best in the city. But Congdon says that even if he doesn’t find a buyer he’ll be gone by the end of summer.

“My work here is done,” he says. “It’s hard because Gajah Wong is part of my soul, but I’m not completely here anymore. I’m in Bali.”

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