We've read a few articles lately about how many restaurant closures — and openings — Charleston has seen this year. There's no doubt this is a foodie town, where locals and travelers alike seek new taste experiences. But this year's closures may highlight a correction in the market. How many restaurants can Charleston support?
In a recent interview, Leon's and Little Jack's owner Brooks Reitz spoke of his former cafe on King St., St. Alban, which closed last year. It was beloved by the neighborhood and Instagram, and people still talk about it. But Reitz says the bottom line just didn't support keeping the doors open. In hindsight, he realized you have to tailor your concept to consumer demand, helpful advice for anyone in the industry.
Couple this with an article out in May about J.Crew's CEO Mickey Drexler stepping down that theorizes a transition from a supply-driven to a demand-driven economy, and you have something to think about. While the article was talking about mainstream fashion retail, I think the principles apply to our food scene, too. In a saturated market, is it even enough to stand out? How long can you maintain the buzz and hype needed? Can your business survive the continental shelf that is the post-opening era?
Which brings me to The Park Cafe. The Rutledge Avenue restaurant just announced that they're cutting their dinner service, after several months of offering attractive dinner specials, and literal years of providing consistently great food. As a fan of the cafe, it feels like a punch to the gut.
Related Park Cafe ending dinner service, shifting to just breakfast and lunch: Make a reservation for June 24
In the Westside, my neighborhood, we lost Lee Lee's Kitchen last year. As a neighbor, I miss the convenience and the dishes, the fun vibe. There were a few reasons we didn't dine there very often (mostly service related), but I'm not alone in the neighborhood when I say that if I'd known Lee Lee's was about to shut down, I'd have eaten there more. When there are seemingly limitless choices, one mediocre experience can steer you away; a second seals the deal. (Yes, I spoke to a manager. No, I did not slam them on the infamous Wagener Terrace Facebook Page.)
But I won't put all the blame on Lee Lee's, no way. I'll take a portion. I'm endlessly charmed by restaurant openings, those shiny new menus and creative interiors. I get starry eyed at small plates and strange foods. But when Park Cafe said they're not doing dinner service anymore, I paused. What are we coming to? Are only new restaurants worth my money? Am I just another part of the consumer culture? Has the trend toward disposables reached this far? Local businesses are shuttering weekly as chains fill their spaces. I don't want a Starbucks where Park Cafe sits.
Location Details The Park Cafe
So, I'm going to be more mindful about where I'm spending my money. I'm going to start supporting, instead of scattering it around. If we want our neighborhoods to have cafes, coffee shops, and dinner spots, we have got to go to them. Regularly. I tend to think there are so many people in Charleston, surely a particular restaurant doesn't need my help. But from recent events, we know that isn't the case.
I'm going to start sticking closer to home, and spending there, too. I want Westside and the rest of the Upper Peninsula to be as vibrant as possible. Not only because I live there, but the parking is easier, or I can just walk.
If you love your neighborhood places, pay them a little more attention. Watch for more specials and events, as that seems to signal a cloaked internal panic. If you see your favorite restaurants offering these deals, get in there. Invite your friends. Your neighborhood places would love to see you, again and again. Or you may find your self wishing you had gone after it's too late.
Bunny is a Charleston freelance writer. She's been published in Stationery Trends, Thom, Atlanta Golf Magazine, Thomasville Magazine, and Georgia Golf Guide. She’s also been featured in Southern Living Magazine.