Has the tide turned for Fresno's restaurant industry?
Fresno has at least eight new large restaurants — either already open or preparing to this fall.
These aren't little mom-and-pops in strip malls. These are the big boys, owners of successful restaurants opening in high-profile spots.
They're taking advantage of a window of opportunity where restaurateurs with money to spend — or investors willing to spend it for them — are snapping up good deals on empty restaurants. They're emboldened to launch new places by the beginnings of an economic recovery they're seeing at their existing restaurants.
"They know it's time to do it and they're doing it again," said Roman Cota, president of the Fresno chapter of the California Restaurant Association.
It's a marked change from the end of 2012 when a flurry of familiar names closed their doors.
"Right now you'll see a big growth in existing restaurants either expanding or opening," Cota said. "As the economy gets better, you'll see chefs or others who have little experience doing it."
The new restaurants vary. There's the former Claim Jumper restaurant that is being transformed into Westwoods BBQ by Dave Fansler, one of the city's most successful restaurateurs.
Some are a rebirth of Fresno favorites, such as the retooled Samba in Fig Garden Village and a Selma restaurateur's plans to reopen the Downtown Club.
A couple — including Capo's by Giuseppe Gallo's at Palm and Nees avenues — are second locations inspired by bustling business at the first.
Having the experience of running a successful restaurant helps, not just in opening a new one, but in having the money to do it.
Fansler, founder of Tahoe Joe's and Pismo's Coastal Grill, is putting $1 million of his own money into Westwoods. Workers are tearing apart the interior, demolishing and replacing the bar, adding taps for 24 beers, along with a new patio and an outdoor smokehouse.
Investors are pumping in another $3 million, something they wouldn't be doing if Fansler didn't have a track record, Cota noted.
"It's easier to get money when you know people have paid it back and done that in the past," he said.
Many restaurateurs are also finding good deals on empty spaces with kitchens that don't need renovations. The closure of so many restaurants has left landlords with property that isn't making money.
Rent has been cheap for a while, but with even more empty spaces than a year ago, conditions favor the restaurateurs, said Bob Farrar, a former restaurateur and consultant turned real estate agent.
"When a landlord didn't instantly get (a space) filled again, he's a lot more willing to write a lease that may be more competitive than it was," he said.
Ideally, rents shouldn't eat up more than 6% of a restaurant's sales — a threshold that is difficult to meet, Farrar said. But low rents are making that easier.
The number of empty restaurant spaces was a motivating factor in the opening of Hermosa California Kitchen — HCK for short — at Champlain Drive and Perrin Avenue.
"I would never have done this had I not seen six restaurants close down in this area," said Lewis Everk, who partnered with the owner of Salsa's Cantina and a local builder to open the restaurant in the former Aqua Shi space.
There are plenty of customers in the neighborhood and not too many competitors for his Mexican-and-American food restaurant and bar to make it, he said.
Likewise, Manny Perales, who is a partner in Yosemite Falls Cafe, said he wasn't planning to expand. But when Bentley's Steaks Seafood and Ribs at Bullard and West avenues closed, Perales jumped at the chance to run a restaurant in a high-profile location on a busy corner that doesn't have that many low-priced restaurants. The new restaurant, High Sierra Grill, opened late last month, offering a limited menu at affordable prices.
Sometimes, the restaurateurs are pursued by landlords. The 4-year-old Giuseppe Gallo's Italian restaurant at Willow and Nees avenues was busting at the seams a year ago. Owner Cher Martin was frustrated that she couldn't build the patio she had hoped for, nor expand into the occupied space next door.
The owners of the Park Place shopping center at Palm and Nees, regular customers, invited Martin to open a second location in the former Thai Palms space. But it was too small, and a pregnant Martin thought the timing wasn't right.
A representative of Fig Garden Village heard about the exchange and started sniffing around, too, and suddenly there were two centers vying for Martin's business. She chose the space in Park Place that Twist and The Venue used to be in, giving the restaurant access to customers on the opposite side of town.
The restaurant opened Aug. 29 with everything Martin wanted: a full bar, a patio, a banquet room, double the space of the original restaurant and rent she could afford.
Of course, cheap rent is no guarantee a restaurant will survive. Running a second location is harder than people think, said Farrar. Restaurants often lose customers from the original location because the second is closer to them, and it's easy to get bogged down with the work of running two places.
But the signs of an improving economy are giving restaurateurs courage. The Valley's economy is still growing at a snail's pace, but it is growing. Restaurants are starting to see slight upticks in the number of people eating out and how much they spend, said Cota, of the restaurant association.
Some are downright flourishing, such as the Press Box Sports Grill on Figarden Drive. Sales this quarter are running 23% to 24% higher than this time last year, said co-owner Tom Miller.
"We're doing phenomenal," he said. "There was not one seat available from 9:30 in the morning on Sunday to literally 9:30 at night — that's football."
The business is partnering with the owners of Piazza del Pane and Me-N-Ed's to open a second Press Box. It will open by the end of September in the former Pane Pronto space at Herndon and Fowler avenues.
The new location will have the same format and menu as the original, including the signature bacon cheddar stuffed chicken fingers.
Miller, who also runs a real estate office, thinks Fresno is seeing the "last bastion of good rates," and isn't surprised people are snapping them up.
"Us restaurateurs are more optimistic than we are pessimistic," Miller said. "The reason why we're jumping at these places is not really the low lease rate, but the opportunity for sales."
Westwoods BBQ and Spice Co., 8042 N. Blackstone Ave.: The founder of Tahoe Joe's, Pismo's and Yosemite Ranch is overhauling the former Claim Jumper space in River Park. The menu will be a modern take on traditional barbecue, including dishes inspired by other parts of the country and world, as well as feature some lighter options. Half the restaurant will be quick service with customers ordering at a counter; half will be full service.
Look for a giant retro sign facing Highway 41 that reads "BBQ" with an arrow. "You will forget that Claim Jumper was even there," restaurateur Dave Fansler says.
Tentatively opening before the holidays.
Downtown Club, 2120 Kern St.: The decades-old hot spot for the city's movers and shakers closed in February, but restaurateur Nick Farid plans to reopen it. Farid also runs Famous Shish Kebab in Selma. The new restaurant will open Oct. 1.
He plans to rehire the cooks and create a budget-friendly menu with a mix of American, Mediterranean, Italian and Asian food. He will change the menu every three months.
Shenanigans, 6650 N. Cedar Ave.: This restaurant and bar will open in the former Fibber McGee's spot near Herndon Avenue. Chef Paul Palomino, former owner of Palomino's in the Tower District, is developing the menu for the lunch and dinner spot. One of Shenanigans owners is the owner of The Office 1560.
It is scheduled to open Sept. 27.
Capo's by Giuseppe Gallo's, 7835 N. Palm Ave., Park Place shopping center: This is the second location for the owners of the Italian restaurant Giuseppe Gallo's at Willow and Nees avenues in Clovis. The original location opened in 2011 and is regularly packed. It will remain open.
The owners couldn't expand where they were, so decided to open a second restaurant on the other side of town, in the space once occupied by Twist and The Venue. This one has a full bar and banquet room. It is open.
Press Box Sports Grill, 1785 Herndon Ave., Clovis: The 4-year-old Press Box is partnering with the owners of Piazza del Pane to turn the former Pane and Pizza Fusion spot into another Press Box. The sports-themed restaurant will have the same menu, including its signature bacon cheddar stuffed chicken fingers.
It is scheduled to open by the end of September.
Samba Global Cuisine, Fig Garden Village: This restaurant is a reincarnation of the previous Samba, but instead of focusing only on Brazilian cuisine, the new Samba has food from all over the world. It still has the rodizio dinner where waiters cut meat on skewers at your table, but also offers Indian, Mediterranean, pizza and burgers. It took over the former Belana space and is now open.
Hermosa California Kitchen, 1144 E. Champlain Drive, Piazza del Fiore shopping center: This hip restaurant and bar — HCK for short — has loud music and a San Diego or Las Vegas vibe. Its kitchen stays open until 12:30 a.m. and serves American and Mexican food. It gets lots of customers for NFL games and is open for brunch on weekends with bottomless mimosas.
It is owned by Jesse Mendoza, owner of Salsa's Cantina in Clovis, former restaurant consultant and manager Lewis Everk, and builder Tommy Phelen.
It opened in the former Aqua Shi spot last month.
High Sierra Grill, 2003 W. Bullard Ave.: Half of this Western and mountain-themed restaurant offers quick service for customers who order at a counter and pick up their food when their number is called. The other half is devoted to people who want waiters and waitresses. The limited menu includes tri-tip, hamburgers, sandwiches, tacos and salads.
The three partners behind the restaurant also own the four Yosemite Falls Cafe restaurants, and Paul's Place in Merced and Mulligan's Cafe in Santa Barbara.
It opened in late August.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6431, firstname.lastname@example.org or @BethanyClough on Twitter. Read her blog on fresnobeehive.com.