Bethany Clough

Eating Out: Eight restaurants close, new ones prepare to take over

A slew of local restaurants – at least eight – have closed in the Fresno area in recent months.

Closures always inspire lots of speculation, with most people wanting to know “Why?”

Truth is, answers are often difficult to find. Some restaurant owners understandably don’t want to talk about their failure. And other restaurants go down in flames with partners lobbing accusations in he said, she said disputes that are impossible to verify in a way that meets The Bee’s journalistic standards.

But I’ll share what I know and leave the conclusions to you.

First, the closures:

People often say that closures are proof that Fresno can’t support independent restaurants. That’s just not true. Although this city loves it chains (have you seen the line outside Olive Garden on a weekend night?), we have plenty of longtime, thriving local restaurants.

Sometimes restaurants close for reasons that aren’t financial. I’ve seen divorces, illness, retirement and feuds among owners lead to closures.

But the restaurant industry is an extremely tough one, and usually there is an economic element to closures.

Such small businesses are under “immense pressure,” Jot Condie, president and CEO of the California Restaurant Association, says in an emailed statement.

They “operate on razor-thin profit margins, often less than 5 percent, meaning a restaurant that sells $1,000,000 a year in food and drinks only profits about $50,000.”

California’s minimum wage increased to $10 an hour at the beginning of the year. Labor costs account for more than 40 percent of a restaurant’s operating costs, Condie says.

High-profile closures

One restaurant closure that readers have asked about repeatedly is the Clovis Hofbrau, near Highway 168 and Temperance Avenue. The restaurant opened in April 2015, but was closed by early December.

The restaurant owners could not be reached for comment. At least two lawsuits seeking tens of thousands of dollars have been filed with the Fresno Superior Court by unpaid suppliers.

The property owner, Kevin Tweed of Pavilion Properties, says the closure wasn’t because the restaurant didn’t make enough money.

“My understanding is it was a partnership dispute,” he says.

He’s already in negotiations with another restaurateur who will likely move into the space. Since the deal isn’t finalized, he declined to name the person.

“I’ve probably never had a building that’s attracted so much attention,” Tweed says. “We’ve had many, many restaurants that have approached us.”

Sweet River Grill also closed its Clovis and Merced restaurants and took down its sign at its Sierra Vista Mall location recently.

The owner could not be reached for comment before deadline, but last week workers were busy cleaning up the place for a new restaurant that will take its place.

Colton’s Social House is moving in. It has a Facebook page that says it’s a burger restaurant and bar and grill, but details are slim beyond that.

Upbeat owners

Lela’s restaurant at Marks and Herndon avenues shut down late last month after four years.

Chef and founder Manny Carr said several reasons led to the closure: rising food prices – especially meat – less foot traffic in the shopping center he was in, and factors he didn’t want to talk about publicly.

Carr sounded surprisingly upbeat during our conversation for a man who just closed something he poured his heart and soul into, so I asked him about it.

“There’s a lot of positives that came through this,” he says.

The restaurant had a good run – especially with its wine dinners – and won awards.

After 2 1/2 slow months, and barely breaking even, he decided to “just cut my losses and be proud of the opportunity I had.”

He also met his wife through the restaurant. She came in with a friend to study, and Carr would make them breakfast burritos and mimosas. One thing led to another, and the pair were married in November.

Next up for Carr? Going on a honeymoon.

Ethiopian restaurant Lucy’s Lair at Champlain Drive and Perrin Avenue closed in November, with owner Sossena T. Mariam saying business was simply too slow. But Fresno has not seen the last of this friendly woman.

She’s currently teaching private cooking classes. She leads hands-on sessions for about four people in their homes, teaching them to make samosas and other food. She’ll also be teaching some classes at Whole Foods.

And she plans to start a catering business, although that project is in its infant stages. She can be reached via email at sossenatm@gmail.com.

Saigon Deli, a popular burger and Vietnamese spot on the Fulton Mall, closed Jan. 29 – although its owners are hinting at reopening.

The owners could not be reached for comment, but Rick Roush, owner of the T.W. Patterson building the restaurant was in, says Saigon Deli’s three-year lease was up. The restaurant had the option to renew its lease at higher rate – which was in the original lease it agreed to – but declined. The new rent would have taken the payment from below-market rate to market rate, he says.

Roush, who has owned the building for 22 years, says he has a specific type of restaurant he wants in the space.

“I want somebody to do lunch and dinner and more nightlife activity,” he says, noting that 300 to 400 people a day come through his building, many staying until 7 p.m. or so.

As for Saigon Deli, a post on its Facebook page says “due to the outpouring of support, we are currently looking to relocate.” The owners’ hearts are in downtown, it says, but no further information was available.

Quiet closures

Capo’s at Palm and Nees avenues, the sister restaurant to Guiseppe Gallo’s in Clovis, has closed. The owner didn’t return a message seeking a comment, but Guiseppe Gallo’s appears to be staying open.

Joy Luck, the Chinese restaurant next to Sierra Nut House in the Villaggio shopping center on north Blackstone Avenue, appears to have closed sometime in early January. The owners could not be reached for comment.

Rue Cafe closed in December. The little restaurant was next to Club Habanos – which also closed recently – at Palm and Herndon.

Rue founder Susan Stone said a variety of reasons led to the closure: Minimum wage increases, competition from new restaurants and food trucks, lack of soundproofing from neighbor Club Habanos, and a family health issue requiring out-of-state travel.

Bethany Clough: 559-441-6431, @BethanyClough

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