Editor's Note: The following is The Big Spoon, an opinion column on San Antonio's food and drink scene.
This winter was one of the worst in recent memory when it came to revenue, according to a few vocal restaurant owners. The weather and several freezes certainly didn’t help, but to get to the bottom of the problem we first have to look at San Antonio’s dining patterns.
Residents are spending their dough on weekends. This is evidenced by long weekend waits between 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. (Ever tried going to Sea Island on Fridays during Lent? I rest my case). Essentially, restaurant owners and the staff that works for them live and die by whatever profit comes in on busy Friday and Saturday nights and during Sunday brunches.
Last year, 40 restaurants closed their doors — that we knew of. Openings far outnumbered that, but can these new eateries survive on 12 days of moderate business per month?
Slow days mean restaurants have to drum up business one of two ways — by slashing prices or adding entertainment.
Mondays in Monte Vista mean $10 large pizzas at Barbaro while Southtown counterpart Hot Joy serves up ramen specials and cheap tiki drinks. On Wednesdays, the crowds go back for half-off wings. The specials often mean the difference between 100 covers (seats) on weekdays and 250-plus on weekends.
“We’re adding value via our food, and it can bring people out,” says Barbaro owner Chad Carey, “It means giving up a margin, but it’s important when you’re trying to keep the business healthy.”
But value doesn’t always cut it. Chisme, which served up free chips and queso on Tuesday nights, now closes Monday and Tuesday evenings.
“Brunch is a scene,” Carey says. “Wednesdays and Thursdays, we’d like for them to be busy.”
This sentiment is echoed across the board, whether it’s a small sandwich and fried chicken shop on the Eastside or the latest ramen bar in the city. Again, the weather plays a huge part in San Antonio dining.
“In our line of work, it’s the weather. It’s our side of town,” says Denise Aguirre of The Point Park & Eats and a partner of Dignowity Meats. “At The Point, we have to keep reminding people, ‘Hey, we’re here.’”
Dignowity Meats presents its own set of problems. The mostly outdoor business has received a few grants from the economic-development nonprofit SAGE, which helped them score a new sign and updates to the exterior. Aguirre and business partner Andrew Samia have tried to make the restaurant more comfortable in regards to the elements, and there’s a new 15-tap draft system, which she says allows them to support more local breweries. Then there’s the entertainment, which can tack on an extra $100 a night of operating costs for things like karaoke, trivia or acoustic sets.
And dealing with the short attention span of diners is something even big names in San Antonio have to deal with. Jason Dady, who competed in last year’s Iron Chef Gauntlet
and had his chance against Bobby Flay a few months later, has retooled the menu at The Bin Tapas Bar. Tapas are out, shabu shabu is in, as is the once dormant DUK Truck, which now serves Two Bros. BBQ Market ’cue.
Even the Pearl isn’t immune to slow biz days despite aggressive and creative programming. The Bottling Department Food Hall, which opened in July, launched a happy hour last October with half-off drink specials and food specials from each vendor.
“We depend on our weekend sales to carry our slow days,” says Jennifer Dobbertin, co-owner of Tenko Ramen. Tenko’s 26 workers, some of whom work ‘round the clock to keep broth production up, also depend on busy days.
“There’s a really small weak spot of making money. But when it comes to your employees, you can’t just slash hours. It’s people’s livelihoods,” Dobbertin says.
Still, the happy hour took some time to stick. Paying for DJs was something a behemoth like the Pearl can deal with, but smaller businesses struggle with the expense. Dobbertin puts it this way: “You can’t do it for three weeks and expect results and just give up. You have to let it build up.”
It’s easy enough to help. Go out on a weeknight, when waits are shorter, you can grab a table with ease and you can truly catch up with friends and family. Can’t find a sitter? Take the kids. As a new-mom friend says, it’s easier and quieter to eat with a little babe during the week.
“People ask me, ‘How do I become a regular at a restaurant?’ Well, it’s not going to happen at 8 o’clock on a Saturday,” Carey says. “That business is really appreciated from a restaurant and from the tipped employees who work the front of the house.”
I’ll just let the Iron Chef say it.
“If we want to be a world-class dining city, we have to eat out early in the week,” Dady said. “Monday and Tuesdays are the difference in making it and breaking it for many young chef-driven entrepreneurs. We are all busy on Fridays and Saturdays. It’s the weeknights that make the difference of success and failure.”
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