“Not everyone can survive…I imagine in the next year or so, you’ll see a few of the new places close down or get sold,” restaurateur Nat Cutler told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2012, when his restaurant Abbot’s Cellar was part of a crop of recently opened restaurants on Valencia Street.
Two year’s later, Cutler’s Abbot’s Cellar approaches its final days, having announced earlier this month that it will close January 31.
When Abbot’s Cellar opened in 2012 as part of an influx of fairly large restaurants—West of Pecos, Amber Dhara, Mau, Locanda among them—many along Valencia wondered if the street had too many restaurants. Some called for a moratorium. At the dawn of 2015, with at least two of these restaurants closed or closing (Amber Dhara shuttered in July), many are debating the same persistent question of Valencia Street again.
However, it’s a complicated story as to why any restaurant succeeds or fails in the Mission District. Yes, over-saturation can mean restaurants along Valencia’s famed dining drag can cannibalize each other’s business. But factors like size, cost of doing business, value, and a certain je ne sais quoi all contribute to longevity.
Talking to Mission Local in 2015, shortly after announcing Abbot’s Cellar would be no more, Cutler said competition was a big factor in the restaurant’s failure to get traction. Though, it wasn’t for lack of critical success, as Abbot’s Cellar earned rave reviews and was a James Beard semifinalist.
“With fine dining some places are the goose that churned out the golden egg,” said Cutler. “In a city filled with amazing array of restaurants, I’d say there’s 50 to 100 amazing spots, that would all qualify as fine dining, and it’s a real challenge to continue to attract customers.”
Cutler says Abbot’s Cellar failed to consistently appeal to a weekday crowd. The restaurant’s average entrees cost about $27 dollars and its upscale selection of beers ranged from $6 to $29 a bottle. “It was a more special occasion type place…it became more destination than a place to go out on a weeknight,” said Cutler.
According to Phil Lesser, a longtime business consultant that worked with Cutler through Abbot’s Cellar’s permitting process, the ability to draw crowds every night of the week is immensely important for survival.
“It’s a more ‘bridge and tunnel’ crowd over weekend who want different things…but you’ve got to be able to rely on neighborhood people during the week, somebody living within walking distance,” said Lesser. “You can’t just make it up on the weekend, and be hemorrhaging the rest of week.”
Trish Tracey, a longtime San Francisco chef who will be opening up Myriad Gastropub later this year, says that this neighborhood crowd is exactly what will make her business a success. For this reason, she plans to keep prices down so a cocktail and plate of food won’t cost much more than $20. Furthermore, Tracey says “people have a more casual thought process in their head when they think about going out in the Mission.”
Myriad will seat about 75 people, any more is too many for the neighborhood says Tracey.
“I think smaller, intimate venues just do better in the Mission,” said Tracey. “Going into one little place after the other, just has a very Mission vibe.”
Cutler, who’s also a partner at the smaller and more casual Monk’s Kettle, agrees.
“Size worked against us,” said Cutler of Abbot’s. “If it’s full, that’s great, but if it’s not, that was hard… I mean, it was almost 3000 square-feet with 24 foot ceilings. That’s a big space to fill.”
John Clark of Foreign Cinema, which opened in 1999 with 10,000 square feet, told Mission Local after over ten years in business that starting up during the last dotcom boom had been easy, but they faced a new reality after the bust. He attributed their survival to a loyal local base.
Tyler MacNiven, one of the brothers who owns West of Pecos, (also an entry in the 2012 Valencia restaurant boom) has experienced the challenges of running a plus-sized restaurant firsthand. He says West of Pecos had to learn to adapt its 100 plus seat restaurant for different crowds and nights of the week.
On weekdays, West of Pecos’ large back dining room is reserved for private parties, and a partition is put up to create a more “cozy experience” in the front part of the restaurant.
“The restaurant business is weather dependent and night of week dependent,” said MacNiven. “Big restaurants have to be willing to maneuver around that with creative solutions.”
In recent interviews, Cutler discussed the upcoming hike in minimum wage as a factor in the decision to close Abbot’s Cellar—a stance that raised some scorn from the likes of the blogs like the Uptown Almanac.
“The wage increases is not huge, but restaurants operate on very small margins,” Cutler told Mission Local. “Assuming our business levels didn’t improve, there was no way we could support cost of doing business increases in San Francisco without raising our prices.”
Cutler also explained that everything costs more to produce when it comes to fine dining. Abbot’s also had a large and expensive build-out, converting a former auto garage into a restaurant.
“The economics will change when the minimum wage goes up,” said MacNiven. “We’ll embrace the challenge, but customers need to be aware that because of minimum wage increases, it will have to be more expensive to eat out for restaurants to survive.”
Ultimately, Cutler says “it just wasn’t the time or place” for Abbot’s and says he doesn’t know what he would do differently if he wanted to open a similar restaurant on Valencia Street again.
If he were opening West of Pecos today, MacNiven says he’d probably look elsewhere for a location.
“I would want to do it in part of the Mission that doesn’t have restaurant saturation,” MacNiven said. “Whatever concept comes in it would have to resonate with people in that immediate neighborhood, it would have to be something that people are excited about.”
Tracey, whose Myriad Gastropub is set to open in Nombe’s former space on 21st and Mission, says she considered opening up her restaurant on Valencia Street, but that was ten years ago,“For me for right now, I felt Valencia has enough restaurants.”
Lesser says there’s no magic pill when it comes to restaurant success in the Mission. Rather, “things are dynamic, you’ve got to tweak.”
He cites of the example of Foreign Cinema, which was so large and different that its opening was “as if the Martians had arrived on Mission Street.” After numerous accolades and much success, the large, high-end destination, is still going strong 15 years later. Says Lesser: “nothing is a guarantee.”