We probably shouldn't be shocked that 18 downtown restaurants have closed so far this year

Rents jumped 26 percent between Feb. 2015 and Feb. 2016

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Artisan Meat Share locks its doors for good this Sunday - JONATHAN BONCEK FILE
  • Jonathan Boncek file
  • Artisan Meat Share locks its doors for good this Sunday
It's no secret that of new restaurants, 60 percent don't make it past the first year. Five years on and as many as 80 percent will go under. Closures happen quickly and often right after the first of the year. This is nothing new. However, 18 downtown restaurants have closed since the start of 2017 — four in the past month — and that may feel like a lot, especially when you compare it to the same time period last year when, according to the Charleston Restaurant Report and my own reporting, only seven downtown restaurants closed.

So why so many this year? The truth is, it's impossible to narrow down the reason to any one thing. Some concepts just don't work out. Chefs move on to new projects. Personal issues come up. In Charleston, tastes are ever-evolving and with staffing resources still a problem, it's not easy to hack it those first few months in business, let alone keep a restaurant successfully operating for 16 years like the recently closed Cypress did.

But the crush of rent costs cannot be ignored, and they're going up. According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance's recent study "How Rising Commercial Rents Are Threatening Independent Businesses, and What Cities Are Doing About It," Charleston saw citywide retail rents skyrocket 26 percent between Feb. 2015 and Feb. 2016. The average asking price for retail downtown last year was $38 per square foot, though I'm told it can go as high as $80 for some locations on King Street.

Rising rents are no joke. A former restaurant owner recently told me that he closed his downtown spot because the rent just became too much. Even for a fine dining establishment, he couldn't foresee continuing in the same location. Now imagine a new casual spot like Smith Street Pizza, trying to get started in the former Norm's with a menu of items priced around $10, paying $6,500 a month for its space.

Which brings up the allure of cashing out on a hot piece of property. Just look at the East Bay space formerly occupied by retailer Charleston Cooks! Restaurateur Dick Elliott sold the property in March 2016 to Pavilion Development Co. for $3.65 million. Pavilion, in turn, just sold it to Texas-based Seaside Hospitality Corp. for $4.9 million this month and, surprise, surprise, it's now destined to become a boutique hotel.

And that's not even considering the competition. New restaurateurs have an entire peninsula covered in already established, successful, top-of-their-game restaurants, plus, there's the never-ending tide of newbies coming online. In the past five months 21 new restaurants have opened downtown. Last year during the same period it was 14.

So is it any wonder many can't cut it? I'm less inclined to call this a bursting bubble than the new normal. Top talent breeds fierce competition and hot property only makes opening and operating a new restaurant more difficult.

Here are the downtown restaurants that have closed since January:

Cypress
Artisan Meat Share
Lana
Norm's
Smith Street Pizza
Nick's Barbecue downtown
Avila
Bull Street Gourmet
La Hacienda
Taco Spot
Apartment A
Barony Tavern
Westendorff
Sermet's
Dixie Supply Bakery & Cafe
P.I.E. Bakeshop
Boone's Bar
D & D Restaurant


Here are the restaurants that have opened:

Gentry
Nacha Mama
Rudy's Cafe e Vino
Scott's BBQ
Sorghum & Salt
Stella's
Tapio
The Brick
Callie's Hot Biscuit II
Goulette
Palace Hotel
Pink Bellies
Kite Noodles
Juan Luis
Bad Wolf Coffee
JD Loves Cheese
1Kept
Benny Ravellos
Poke Tea House
Pancito & Lefty
Rappahannock Oyster Bar


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