For every Wm. Mulherin’s Sons, Perla or ITV, the Philly dining scene is littered with the cold stoves and dead Yelp listings of neighborhood spots that never got hot.
Witness the names across the restaurant tombstones just this past year: Petruce et al, Juniper Commons, Tashan, Palladino’s, Rotisseur, Buckminster’s, Good Stuff Eatery.
In an average year, according to the National Restaurant Association, some 60,000 restaurants debut…and about 50,000 close.
For anyone who wants to open a restaurant, these numbers should give pause. At best, the statistic suggests a market in constant flux; at worst, a business where long-term success is the exception.
What elevates the survivors? A combination of creating the right concept, executing it consistently, recruiting dedicated staff and having sufficient capital to ride out the (inevitable) tough times.
“You have to know your customer base and know what they want and cater to them,” says George Reilly, owner of The Twisted Tail, which this summer marked its fifth anniversary. “But if you’re slipping up and becoming inconsistent with the customer experience, people will start to doubt.”
Long-term success also hinges on taking chances with your concept and banking on customers going along for the ride.
Fork, which will mark 20 years in 2017, has reinvented itself multiple times. It started as a neighborhood bistro in then-burgeoning Old City, and has become a destination restaurant with a national reputation.
The latter status reflects co-owner Ellen Yin’s partnership with acclaimed chef Eli Kulp, with whom she formed a restaurant group that now owns Fork and High Street restaurants in both Philly and New York City and also oversees operations for Philadelphia’s a.kitchen and a.bar.
“I do believe once you become complacent, you might as well close, the market is so competitive,” Yin says. “We’re still adjusting, tweaking, modifying and changing the restaurant –– it’s ongoing, and it has been since day one.”
For regulars, swallowing the changes isn’t always easy. When Yin and Kulp transformed Fork’s takeout sibling (Fork:etc.) into High Street on Market, a breakfast, lunch and dinner concept that changes throughout the day, some patrons became almost “belligerent,” according to Yin.
Even Yin had early doubts about the viability of High Street, before patrons seemed to fully embrace its separate dining personalities.
“When we opened High Street, there were times when I was worried about it, because it’s such a complicated formula –– breakfast, lunch and dinner each has its own concept. You’re constantly trying to make sure people know about each one equally and giving them attention.”
For Reilly, his long-term plans hinge on trying to stay “ahead of the curve” while keeping true to the Twisted Tail brand, which melds Southern-influenced comfort food, bourbon and live blues.
A switch to a shared plates menu this year has gone smoothly, because it reflects more of an evolution than an outright shift. The change was inspired by the restaurant’s annual Thanksgiving dinner, in which the food is served family-style, and on Reilly sampling similar concepts in other cities.
“You want to set the trends for what comes next –– that’s the winning concept,” he says.
Do restaurants have a natural sell-by date? Barring losing her lease or some other seismic change, Yin doesn’t envision being anywhere else except on the floor of one of her restaurants for the foreseeable future.
“If you don’t enjoy being in a restaurant, there are so many other ways to make money, why would you pick this particular one?” she says. “I’ve been in other careers, and I still love this the most.
“There are very difficult times when everybody doesn’t show up or people walk out or people go to another restaurant. You have to keep believing and empowering your staff to keep believing in the ultimate mission.”
A former actor, Reilly says he gets most of his job satisfaction from interacting with guests, whether in the restaurant or through their comments. Trying to keep earning that positive feedback is what motivates him to aim for 10 years.
“You put a hell of a lot of effort into opening a place,” he says. “You want to earn money and stay open and get that return, not just the financial return, but the satisfaction.”