In the midst of a food renaissance, why are Long Beach restaurants closing?

They are the newest pair joining what seems like a long list of casualties.

Ô Gourmet, after serving Belmont Shore for just a handful of months in the space where Babette’s Feast had just closed prior, and BurgerIM, offering the Downtown community a fast-casual space for just over two years, have both closed.

The closures follow what has seemingly been a devastating 18 months for restaurants, both new and established, in Long Beach: The Milk Barn, East Long Beach’s beloved milk drive-thru and Italian-American staple, has closed after 36 years; E.J. Malloy’s closed its flagship location in Belmont Heights after nearly three decades; fusion favorite Seoulmate shuttered its windows to become a ghost kitchen for pizza delivery; Naples staple Russo’s closed up shop after 30 years of business; both Linden Public in Downtown and Forbidden City in Alamitos Bay have given way to new concepts after their closures; 4th and Olive, the lauded Alsatian restaurant, attempted a new concept, PigBurd, only to also close...

Then there’s Francelli’s on Fourth Street that closed on its 60th anniversary while The Pizza Place has remained shuttered for a large part of its 40th year as the family attempts to reorganize. HashTag Burger and Tokyo Guild both closed in Bixby Knolls. The Organic Fork by CSULB. Lasher’s, Papalucci’s, Tavern on 2, The Spot Cafe, Magic Lamp, and Peet’s joined the lengthy list of closures in Belmont Shore. Great Society and Table 301 in Downtown. Zaferia’s popular Red Leprechaun will close later this year. Do Good Donuts didn’t even last a year on Fourth Street. The controversially named Yellow Fever closed. So did Rebel Bite in Downtown after six years of operation. And, again on Second Street, the closure of Acapulco Inn which had served the Shore for over 60 years

The list seems to go on and on and it can be overwhelming—and in a sense, it is: Surely, restaurant closures are high everywhere, especially Los Angeles. But unlike Los Angeles’ sprawling, massive food scene, where constant changes permeate nearly every neighborhood, Long Beach’s culinary activity, though seeing a renaissance in terms of quality and offerings, remains intimate, personal and deeply emotional. Locals know the owners, the management, the kitchen staff and, unlike L.A., even the loss of smaller places are felt in a deeply communal way because our restaurant scene has remained unchanged for significantly longer periods than our neighbor to the north and other cities.

So what, precisely, is going on?

There is not one culprit but many

The most succinct answer is this: There is not a single reason for all these closures. Like the lives of our families, the lives of restaurants are complex and the problems they face are multi-faceted.,

There are operator issues, one of the most undiscussed aspects of the restaurant business. While the ominous focus tends to naturally drive attention toward rising rents or evil landlords, there is a blunt reality: Bad operators can ruin a business.

Take the fall of Tavern on 2 in Belmont Shore, for example.

The first blow to the restaurant’s operations came on May 11 in 2018 when, according to a health code violation report from the city, Tavern faced an assortment of serious issues, including food stored at an improper temperature, a lack of hand-washing facilities, a sewage leak that forced the restaurant to clear its plumbing lines, flies near beverage containers and dispensers, and a vermin infestation with animal droppings “too numerous to count.” The space then tried to operate without a health permit on top of the restaurant’s LLC license having been suspended.

This, however, doesn’t negate rising rents or stubborn landlords: The Spot Cafe in the Shore received a notice saying its rent would rise from $9,200 per month to $13,000. The owners of Russo’s in Naples claimed that they had repeatedly complained about roofing issues only to later receive a notice that the landlord would not renew their lease.

The owners of The Milk Barn Pizza & Dairy—an institution in and of itself given its distinct aura, drive-thru grocer, and seemingly always-adaptable back-patio space that served up quality Italian-American grub—noted a different type of rent increase: that of the places where their customers live.

“It’s not just the cost of business going up, ya know, it’s the cost of rent [for our customers],” owner Joe van Ruiten told us when closing up The Milk Barn. “These poor people spend so much money on rent that they have to brown bag their lunch for work. It’s… it’s disheartening.”

The Milk Barn also faced traffic issues. With the build-out of the nearby Long Beach Exchange plopping a dozen new spaces to eat in a neighborhood whose population has remained stagnant, patronage naturally shrinks. Lasher’s in the Shore, a re-imagining of the original restaurant once in Belmont Heights that is now The Attic, also faced traffic issues.

“There is no single point-of-blame, no effigy to hang,” owner Ray Lasher said. “There just isn’t enough traffic for us to make money; Belmont Shore has remained stable in the population, not welcoming in new people. On top of this, across the board there are fixed and variable expenses that continue to rise—so without the traffic needed to sustain our model and, from a business angle, it simply doesn’t make sense… Again, there is no one to blame; it was our idea, our choice to get back into this and, unfortunately, it just didn’t get to the point we wished it had.”

Then there’s just simple exhaustion: The owners of Seoulmate closed up shop to focus on the short-lived Mr. Makoto ramen shop and, after facing burn out, is now a Filipino fusion restaurant. The owners of Babette’s Feast? The same: Exhaustion.

This isn’t even to mention the mismanagement or outright lack of knowledge when it comes to handling costs and counting pennies.

Unethical and bad operators. Rising rents for both business owners and patrons. Stubborn landlords. Shifts in culture. Simple lethargy. These are but a handful of the issues that all restaurants—not just those in Long Beach—face.

But what of this ‘renaissance’?

There is, however, one elephant in the room that has to be addressed. And it’s the one that is probably going to frustrate some business owners but still garner nods: Long Beach’s food scene has seen a surge in quality and, whether business owners decide to admit it or not, it is an underlying current among many of the closures.

If we begin with one of the most recent closures, BurgerIM, and its nearby neighbor, Table 301, we can see how not only knowing your community is essential to survival but keeping up with the quality of food being served can be the cog to longterm health in a restaurant.

BurgerIM, a slider franchise, opened on the same street as Dog Haus, Beer Belly, and Portuguese Bend while standing at rock-throwing distance from Beachwood, Congregation, The Ordinarie, and Hamburger Mary’s. Offering mediocre sliders in an area rich with quality burgers and sandwiches seemed both counterintuitive and naive—and something I pointed out when it opened in 2017.

Then there is Table 301, the monster of a restaurant space that started slinging wood-oven-cooked pizzas across the street from Michael’s, one of the city’s most respected pizzerias.

What these two spaces tell you is that, whether it was the real estate agent who sold them the lease or the friend not kind enough to point out the redundancy of their offerings, they simply didn’t know their surrounding community nor did they talk to it.

Ellie’s in Alamitos Beach isn’t just solid because Chef Jason Witzl’s food is stellar; the restaurant, which replaced a much beloved-but-it-hit-a-plateau cafe known as At Last, had its family go out into the neighborhood.

“I literally talked to everyone I could,” Witzl said. “I would talk to every passerby. I would touch every table personally. I would listen to all the complaints. I would listen to all the compliments. I would take serious concerns expressed seriously. It sounds like something everyone should be doing but they don’t. It takes work; it takes building trust.”

Add onto the layers of mediocrity and one can see that it isn’t always something as simple as a lease contract. Tavern on 2, for example, had bad operators that I discussed earlier in this piece; it also saw a drop in consistency and quality that likely led to their health violations.

Babette’s Feast also saw a drop in quality before closing, as did Linden Public, 4th & Olive/PigBurd, HashTag Burgers, Mr. Makoto…

Francelli’s, once an Italian-American gem, became so inconsistent that one patron, Nanette Marinson, said, “We used to come here all the time with our boys when they were little and the food was good and the prices fair for what you got—well, a lot has changed in nine years and not for the better. Since returning to [Long Beach], we have tried this place two times and never returned before it closed.”

One could easily argue that, though a longtime staple in the region and a defining part of California’s diner culture, the closure of Spires was more about quality than people not wanting a piece of pie or cheap two-egg breakfast.

While there are myriad concerns, the two things a restaurateur cannot ignore are quality and what the community actually wants from it. The city’s vastly changing dining scene is, for the most part, entirely positive. Even the expansions of cottage businesses like Gusto Bread are upping their quality in such a way that they are seeing recognition beyond our borders (like this shout-out to Gusto from Eater LA).

Whether your business is old or new, therein lies a danger to being too comfortable or presumptive in the sense that you believe your concept will always be able to work. In a place as big yet intimate as Long Beach, you have to talk to your patrons, talk to your neighbors and adapt.

Brian Addison is a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or on social media at FacebookTwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.

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Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 16 nominations and two additional wins for Best Political Commentary for his work at KCET and Best Blog for Longbeachize, a section of the Long Beach Post. Brian currently serves as a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post.
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