A good friend of mine owns a great building that used to house an old bar downtown. It’s this historical landmark type of building, loads of character and local heritage. This is the place they were looking at when they made up the 1st rule of the restaurant business: “Location, location, location.” And yet, it’s been sitting there, empty, since he purchased it two years ago. “Well, of course it’s empty, in today’s economy,” people say. Capital is hard to come by. Even in boom times, banks have one hard and fast rule about loaning money to start-up restaurants: Don’t loan money to start-up restaurants.
But my buddy doesn’t want to be a restaurateur; he wants to be a restaurateur’s landlord. He is a developer, a guy who’s made his money in housing construction and sales. He loves dining out, has a great wine cellar at home, and has a good grasp on what makes a restaurant great as far as food, wine, and service go; but he also knows enough to know he doesn’t know enough. So he’s looking for an operator to take on the project. He’s even got an investor willing to be a limited partner in whatever goes in there, as long as he’s got a shot at getting his money back at some point. As an incentive he’s doing all the necessary earthquake retro-fit work, putting in an elevator to conform to the Americans With Disabilities Act, and getting all the permits for rooftop dining overlooking the river and downtown. He’s even buying a liquor license for a couple hundred grand that will go along with the lease (but stay with the building if his tenant leaves). Such is the way of the world these days, that you’ve got to be willing to dangle a bigger worm than the other guy if you want to get the nibbles.
There was a time not too long ago when I would have immediately penned a business plan and gone running around town, humping the leg of every rich person I know, frothing at the mouth to them about what a great opportunity I, and this place, would be for them. They would get great return on their investment; they would have “bragging rights” and be able to get a table in the hottest place in town with just a phone call if they would just write that big check for me.
In years past, I have written business plans for an upscale fish house with what would have been the first raw bar in the Napa Valley; a Baja-style fish taco stand; a place that would specialize in Southeast Asian street food (I was going to call it “Round-Eye Noodle Bar”), plus several others here in The Valley and elsewhere. These days, though, I feel a touch more cynical about that “someday I’ll have my own place” idea. Those dreams have faded over the past few years, partially because I’m getting older, maybe because I’m more practical; but mostly because I just don’t want to work that hard anymore. Whatever the source of the transfusion, the hot restaurateur’s blood running in my veins has thinned a little.
There is an unwritten axiom of Capitalism that says those with the best ideas seldom are the ones with the money to act on them, so they must submit to those that do; and they will often have discomfort sitting down as a result. I felt I needed one of those inflatable doughnut cushions for several months after one such experience in my past; and let me tell you, it wasn’t to make room for a fat wallet. I got a $15,000 lesson in trust that I will never forget. So when my friend is telling me about what could potentially be a great deal, and dropping not so subtle hints that I should look into scratching up some dough to get something going in this fabulous space, my first thought is not “Where can I get the money to make this happen?” but more along the lines of “Do I know anybody crazy enough to want to do this?”
I’m sure he’ll find someone eventually; the space is too good to sit there empty for much longer, and the local economy is showing signs of new life. He’ll find someone willing to march into battle everyday, dealing with refrigeration repairs, employees calling in sick, stealing from them, and with the onerous demands of the State Board of Equalization. I hope for his sake he finds someone who can take this place, with its rich history, and return it to glory days. I’ll tell him when he gets it going to give me a call. I’ll be on the beach in Baja, living my new dream: drinking Margaritas and watching the workers at my little taqueria sell fish tacos to the tourists.
Aw, shit. Who am I kidding? If you know someone with a few hundred thousand to burn, give me a call and we’ll do this bitch right.