Laying a business, and dreams, to rest

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Shakespeare’s famous line, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him,” came to mind as I boarded my flight to New York to close my Spanish restaurant Mercat, which is on Bond Street in Manhattan.

An authentic Catalan restaurant next to one of the best Italian restaurants in New York and on one of the city’s last cobblestone streets, Mercat has become a destination point for local and visiting Spaniards.

It’s a place where Spain’s celebrated soccer star Lionel Messi has been watched on big-screen televisions for the past two years, where grandmother’s recipes found admiring customers and where celebrities knew they could hide from the paparazzi.

A business partner almost half my age inspired me to think about the restaurant business not as something I did in the past, but as something I should still be doing. Having sold the Warehouse Restaurant and Gallery in 2007 (after 10 years), I thought I’d never be part of another restaurant ever again.

Not only did I become a partner in Mercat, I helped open a second location in Brooklyn. But as sure as we were that our warehouse conversion was perfectly timed with the gentrification of this Williamsburg neighborhood, we discovered that the Great Recession affected us, too.

Instead of economies of scale, preparing the food in one location and shipping it to the other, we were burdening one successful enterprise with a newly opened laggard. We even changed Mercat Negra (black market) with its Catalan cuisine to Tecalote (owl), serving high-end Mexican food. Within two years a dream was sold to another operator.

In the summer of 2010 a group of investors helped me renovate what became the Colorado Springs restaurant Il Postino. Within six months the Mining Exchange Hotel incorporated it into its overall operations, making it Springs Orleans. Here, too, the menu radically changed to Cajun/Creole and the restaurant is thriving.

Not all burials are the same, and some deserve praise, after all. Financially, there is never a proper compensation for the sweat equity that accompanies the actual money it takes to open the original restaurants. You are lucky to recoup some of your investment.

Emotionally, there is no clarity. You are sad because you failed to fulfill your dream: You had to close or sell it. It’s impossible to sugarcoat the fact that you failed. No matter the reason, you are no longer part of it.

Yet there is some profound pride that your labor is bearing fruit, even if for someone else. You and your partners are the ones who had the vision, courage, and tenacity to take on massive renovations and open restaurants. And this feeling will never be taken away from you, even if most of the new customers have no idea about the history of the place.

None of these cases warrant the label of resurrection, since their reopening isn’t that profound or divinely inspired. But their resuscitation is still magical and astonishing, reassuring you that your own failure has been turned around.

The sadness of your failure gives way to a deep humility, having realized that someone else can better execute your dream. And perhaps this is what the business world is all about: measuring your success or failure against others.

As long as your ego isn’t entangled in this process, you can withstand public scrutiny. Your customers have a sense of “ownership” and vote with their wallets. New York restaurants (numbering 4,500) are radically different from those in Colorado Springs (numbering 750). In NYC, fierce competition and messy licensing processes are daunting; in CS, “Fast Food Nation” reigns supreme.

The harsh realities of different marketplaces ensure a level of transparency and honesty. You can tell whatever tales you want, but at the end of the day, you either can make it or not. If you can, you stay in the game; if you can’t, cook at home and serve your friends.

The lessons to be learned from the opening and closing of four restaurants are too many to recount here. Some have to do with partnerships and investors, some with banks and landlords; others have to do with permits and contractors, and still others with health and liquor licensing boards; finally, many have to do with employees and customers.

Unless you think about the team that makes it possible for you to succeed, unless you think about the ambiance you are creating to invite your guests to dine and drink with you, don’t ever open a restaurant. It’s a labor of love, given the anemic profit margins of this industry (5 percent national average). And love is difficult to sustain when your counterpart is an amalgam of diverse people and their ideas of a perfect meal.

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com