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Doors Close, Others Open in Poway's Dog-Eat-Dog Restaurant Trade

A tough economy is making it even more difficult for independent restaurants to survive, but that hasn't stopped would-be entrepreneurs from trying.

It takes a lot of work, surviving the restaurant trade, especially for independent owners.

Many would-be entrepreneurs dream of running their own bistros, but few are successful—a fact of life that accounts for the steady openings and closings of so many eateries in a community as small as Poway over the past year.

The city’s suffered a number of closures in that period, including the Cin Cin Italian-themed restaurant and bar on Pomerado Road and House on the Hill off Poway Road.

Luanne Hulsizer, president and CEO of the , said the poor economy has forced out owners who lack good business skills.

“Of all the industries, they have been hit the worst; there has been a huge churn in the last year,” Hulsizer said. “I admire those restaurants that have been able to sustain themselves because obviously that means they have strong business practices, especially in marketing.”

Phil Spear, owner of on Midland Road, said survival comes down to business skills, and staying focused on those skills, as well as a few principles of operating a restaurant.

He said many independent restaurateurs pay last month’s bills with this month’s receipts without sufficient reserves to cover their overhead when they suffer a slow sales month.

“All of a sudden, they’re chasing their tails,” Spear said. “When sales go down, they get even further behind.

“I am very conservative. I always have enough money in the bank to pay my bills, even if I closed the doors tomorrow.”

A slowdown in business will also prompt struggling restaurateurs to cut costs, which often means cutting quality, he adds, which can further lead to erosion in the business.

“They start cutting costs in the wrong way, and that just leads to a downward spiral,” he said. “But it’s very tempting to do at times.”

He said the large failure of restaurants, not just in Poway but everywhere, is partly the result of rising prices, especially commodities, over the past nine months. For example, he notes that the price of coffee has jumped 90 cents a pound in the last few months.

“You’ve got two choices to make: accept a narrower bottom line or raise your prices,” he said.

Jaye Leatherman, owner of on Midway Road, would agree with Hulsizer and Spear about having good business acumen.

Leatherman said she feels that marketing has been her weakness. She’s had her popular coffee shop up for sale since January, despite five-star reviews from customers on such sites as Yelp.

A mechanical engineer by training, Leatherman said taking on the role of an entrepreneur has been challenging, and she feels she’s struggled as a businessperson.

As a result, she’s lost some enthusiasm that she had when she made the purchase.

She says business is “not bad,” and even notes, “It goes up a little bit each month.”

“We’ve had some come look at it, but it's a slow process, because they have to do their due diligence,” she adds. “We don’t have anyone who has made an offer yet.”

“Some of the restaurants that closed were challenged before the economy made a change” said the chamber's Hulsizer, adding, “Unfortunately, a lot of restaurant owners are quite embedded in their work, so they are unable to go back and revisit their business plans, or pursue more education, such as classes offer by Score (Senior Corps of Retired Executives.) They are unable to keep themselves fresh and out there.”

She said those restaurateurs who have been in business for many years, and who have weathered earlier economic storms, have learned how to survive.

Meanwhile, while one door closes, another door opens—in the local restaurant business that is. There are always entrepreneurs willing to give it a go, even in tough times.

Allison Johnson, who purchased the Beach Grass Café after moving to the area last year from Seattle, has changed the name to "." She’s given the interior a facelift and freshened up the menu by hiring two new cooks.

She loved the place as a customer. “It really had a good vibe, and I really liked the food—most of the time,” she says. “I thought this restaurant has all of the makings of being a great restaurant.”

“It came up for sale—the previous owner never got out here to take care of it, so I ended up buying it.”

Existing customers have been happy with the change, and Johnson says business is slowly improving.

But she points out marketing is her big challenge.

“It’s a challenge,” she says. “We’re growing because of all the changes that we’ve done, but I feel like we should be growing faster.”

Meanwhile, the opened for business June 30 in the Poway City Centre shopping mall on Poway Road in a spot previously occupied by the Miami Grille.

Owner Peter Green says he’s attempting a “gastro pub,” which has become trendy in recent years.

Green has a leg up on the competition in that he owned and operated a neighborhood pub in Del Mar before going into corporate event planning in the mid-1990s.

But he says he wanted to return to the business, and he’s been able to do so.

He says the down economy is a good time, as he prefers to look at “the glass as half full.”

“I feel that in my own small way, I am helping to stimulate the economy,” he says. “Because of the huge failure rate of so many restaurants, there is good staff available, and because the economy is down a bit, landlords are willing to talk to independent guys unlike when the economy is doing well and they only want to talk to chains.

“I had some experience, and I had a plan,” Green says.

Mary Lou July 07, 2011 at 08:50 PM
We rarely go out to eat but when we do I like the Hamburger Factory. It's good food and fun atmosphere, and a nicer area than a few blocks south on Poway Rd. In spite of a lot of empty businesses up and down the street, the traffic is horrible on Poway Rd. and I can't imagine anyone wanting to drive into the area for dinner and deal with all that. Sometimes I see a restaurant and think how nice it would be if it could be picked up and moved to a more attractive area in Poway. I can see where drive-thru fast food would work on Poway Rd but not so much a classier sit-down restaurant.
Eric July 07, 2011 at 10:25 PM
Gee, Mary Lou...snobbish much? There are several very fine restaurants along "horrible" Poway Road, and it's your loss that you can't brave the unwashed masses to try them. Kaminski's, Domenic's, Beach Grass Poway, El Comal to name a few, are wonderful places to eat and are as "classy" as anything in town. Sounds to me as if you might want to consider moving to Del Mar or La Jolla...they are FILLED with snobs like you. Just sayin'...
Mary Lou July 08, 2011 at 03:20 AM
I'm one of those unwashed masses, Eric, thanks. I live only one block off of Poway Rd. and Midland where the toxic auto body shop is going into our back yards. So maybe it's because I have to drive through increasingly worse gridlock to even get out of my home (not an exaggeration) I feel a little frustrated with this area. I really do feel that fast food restaurants are more appropriate here amongst empty buildings, industrial and automotive shops and hardware stores. Sadly, I've watched one restaurant after another go under within a few blocks of here. I realize there are some popular spots when you travel a bit west on Poway Rd. But here, the streets are packed yet most of the restaurants that remain usually seem to be nearly empty even at dinner time. I don't mean to be dissing the restaurants, just the traffic. Sorry if I didn't make my point very well. There has been talk for years of cleaning up parts of the Poway Rd area, making it more of a "town center" sort of atmosphere that would welcome visitors and residents alike to friendly shopping, dining and recreation. But for now, it's empty buildings, tire stores and equipment storage. Hope this clarifies the point I intended.
tonya July 08, 2011 at 01:27 PM
Sad to hear Cin Cin closed. They had great food. Another great but small and a little unknown is Luc's Bistro by LA Fitness....great food and super nice people. Looking forward to try Company Pub.
Dave Grosch July 08, 2011 at 03:14 PM
I agree with this article that our businesses need to adjust to these difficult economic times and in-order to survive, good marketing skills is essential. I have been to the Hamburger Factory, Tuscan Sunrise and Beach Grass Poway many times. And I plan to visit the Company Pub and Kitchen again this weekend. I have'nt been to Luc's Bistro. I will after reading the review from Tonya. I urge everyone to support our small businesses in Poway. When they do well its a win win for everyone.
Kelly July 08, 2011 at 03:27 PM
It appears that many businesses cite marketing as their largest weakness. I have spent the better part of the last 20 years working in marketing/advertising. This is the first expense that business owners tend to neglect and has impacted my business enormously in the past 2 years and now I have to find a new career! Marketing is an evil necessity for any business and business owners should really do their homework on the ROI of their marketing to determine what works. What works for one is not always good for another. Mary Lou is correct demonstrating that location is highly important. Often I drive by the Beach Grass Poway and think what an interesting place... too bad it's barely visible and even though it sure looks appealing, I've never been there - the location is a major turn-off.
Clariece Tally July 08, 2011 at 03:31 PM
My husband and I loved House on the Hill. Neal had the business experience to run a great restaurant. I think part of the problem is people want their meal in 15 minutes and have forgotten how to really dine out. When we want to spend ouur hard earned dollar on eating out, the last thing I want to do is eat somewhere with a bunch of noisy, undisciplined kids.
Beach Grass Poway July 08, 2011 at 07:18 PM
I would LOVE to paint the exterior of The Beach Grass restaurant. I have the request in to the landlord, so we will see.....I agree that all of Carriage Center could use sprucing up. Unfortunately, I'm not the decision maker, but given the OK I would gladly paint the restaurant myself and for free! In the mean time, give the restaurant a try.....just don't open your eyes until you're inside!
Beach Grass Poway July 08, 2011 at 07:20 PM
Well said, David!
Gena Barney July 08, 2011 at 11:41 PM
I was so sad to read that House on the HIll closed! That location has been so challenged and I thought that there was finally someone who would be able to "hold on" there! And Cin Cin! I didn't get over there often b/c the parking was miserable, but I had wanted to go again! This economy has clobbered a LOT of small businesses - not just restaurants.... SHOP LOCALLY EVERYONE!!! I can't eat out as much as I used to, but I used to eat out a TON!! In Poway, I like Mexicocina for Mexican, and Poway Sushi Lounge for Sushi (YUM! Facebook Check-In specials too!). Casual dining is GREAT at Hamburger Factory. Want comfort food? Chicken Pie Diner can't be beat! A quick slice of pizza - Rosaria's (starts at $2!). Italian Food - the weekday lunch special at Filippi's is REALLY good! I LOVE the lasagna and their bread CAN NOT BE BEAT! I have wanted to try Luc's - have only heard great things about it! (Sadly, the one time that we tried to go, it was closed - they are not open on Mondays!) I took my Dad to the Beach Grass.... I ordered wrong (it can happen). My dad's meal was great! What I got was fine (nothing wrong with it!) but it wasn't what I was longing for... I will definitely go back! NOTHING BAD ABOUT THE PLACE! And everyone, don't discount the location! It's amazing here in California that most of the best restaurants are in in little strip malls! It still surprises me, but hey - at least the parking is good there! Did I mention that I used to eat out a lot?? :)
Joe St. Lucas July 10, 2011 at 03:47 AM
Remember that the BGP is where Cully's used to be. Cully's was "kicked out" of that location because the owner wanted to put in a more "upscale" Italian restaurant. Well that didn't last too long. Really, people remembered the conditions under which Cully's was booted out, and I, for one (and I know of others) who wouldn't go there because of that. Cully's seems to be doing fine in their "new" location. When the Beach Grass Cafe went in, I checked the on-line menu, looked at the prices, and thought that I wouldn't mind paying a little more for a burger if I could be looking over the ocean (del mar), but not if my "view" was that of Poway Road. So maybe we'll stop in (or check on-line) and see what the menu is like now that it's changed. Oh, and some of the strip-malls were "upgraded" with loans from the city. Take the Dixieline shopping center, old, run-down, got money to upgrade a few years back. And then the rents were jacked up for the owner to pay the loan off. Empty shops. And while the BGP could use a little sprucing up, half of the Carriage Center is thrift stores, their profit goes to whatever church or organization is running it. An increase in rent will probably drive them out.
Clariece Tally July 10, 2011 at 07:59 PM
Gena I think you have the right dining attitude for Poway! It's important that we try the different restaurants - and more than once - since sometimes the first thing we order isn't maybe the best. One of the best things about eating in Poway is - we stay in Poway. No fighting traffic in the Gaslamp or hiking to restaurant row in San Marcos. Poway has many different dining options. And frankly Mary Lou - the drive down Poway Road isn't that bad. It's less than 5 miles long and loaded with options. Sheesh. But you'll 8 miles to avoid it. As far as the Beach Grass Restaurant lacking a view - I generally find the company and conversation I keep at a meal to be the best view and atmosphere.
Joe St. Lucas July 11, 2011 at 12:12 AM
Speaking of Cully's we ate there today for lunch, still stuffed hours later...yum...
Tom Scott July 13, 2011 at 02:12 AM
Poway Rd has some great little restaurants that we love: Luc's Bistro & Poway Sushi Lounge. Brigantine's patio is great for happy hour. City Dragon makes the best Wor Wonton Soup, out comfort food when we don't feel well. Recently, stopped going to the beloved El Ranchito Taco Shop because they changed the cheese that they put on the tacos from finely shreded to thicker shredded which doesn't melt. 'Didn't care for the food at the oriiginal Beach Grass, but will have to give the new versiont a try. Loved Domenics 20 years ago, but lost interest about 10 years ago.

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