In their own words, that’s how some of the staff at Sbraga Tuesday felt when they learned they were out of a job — effective immediately.
Early last week, Kevin Sbraga announced he was closing his namesake first restaurant at the corner of Broad and Pine. Most workers got the news that the dining room’s five-year run was ending not much earlier than the public did; according to multiple people, they were told at “lineup” — the industry term for the routine front-of-house/back-of-house debriefing that occurs nightly before service.
The 37-year-old chef/restaurateur, whose career took off after he won Bravo’s Top Chef in 2010, pulled the same move at the University City outpost of The Fat Ham, his sophomore venture launched three years ago.
“Sorry I don’t have any information [about why the restaurants closed],” said a cook who worked in the Avenue of the Arts kitchen. “I wish I could help or had answers for myself. I am as shellshocked as is everyone else.”
Employees weren’t the only ones who felt that way. When news of the closures broke, the public was also taken aback.
Many former customers lamented the loss on social media, posting notes about beloved dishes — the foie gras soup! the hot chicken! — and remembrances about special evenings. The restaurants weren’t just fan faves, either; both were critically acclaimed, garnering 3 bells from the Inquirer’s Craig LaBan and plaudits from other critics. Plus, Sbraga was well-respected by his peers in the chef community.
So what happened? And why was the termination so abrupt, with less than 24 hours notice?
No one knows for sure except Kevin Sbraga, and he declined to elaborate. “I don’t have any comments at the time,” he wrote in an email that referred all further questions to an outside public relations professional. (Sbraga’s in-house communications person left the company two months ago, following the late spring departure of the operations manager.)
Surprising as the shutters were to most people, some former Sbraga Dining staff members, speaking on condition of anonymity, claim to have seen the writing on the wall.
“Our costs seemed to be in line,” said one former high-ranking employee, who cited food costs that hovered between 20 and 23 percent and labor costs below 15 percent — both extremely low for a high-end restaurant.
Despite that, “it was always made out to be like we never had any money or never were making any money,” the former worker continued. “There was a long time where we were three months behind on [paying] vendors.”
On the final day, one justification reportedly given to staff was that there had been a drop in revenue. But a different former employee, who had worked as a server at Sbraga for more than three years, said no downturn wasn’t dramatic enough to cause a big decline in take-home tip pay.
“Some of the weeknights seemed to be a little slower than they had been,” the staffer said, “but were servers still making a living there? Yes. Everyone was happy working there.”
Also, as a fourth former employee pointed out, a slowdown would not have been unique to Sbraga or The Fat Ham. Many independent restaurants have been feeling a crunch lately, as an unprecedented number of new establishments have saturated the local scene over the past couple of years.
One of these was Sbraga’s Juniper Commons. The ‘80s-themed upscale “diner” was definitely never as busy as hoped (or busy at all, really), and the venture at the corner of Broad and South folded in June 2015, before it even reached the six-month mark.
Was that the start of the end? Perhaps.
“It just snowballed after [Juniper Commons closing],” one of the former crew members said. “It just seemed like we weren’t doing things the right way or the smart way.”
The theory seems borne out by the fact that a year later, critically-acclaimed Sbraga & Co. in Jacksonville, Fl., met an abrupt demise and shut down before its first anniversary. That catastrophe was attributed to a dispute between the Florida developer and landlord — a statement released at the time said “it was not a Sbraga Dining decision to close” — and there’s where the twist comes in: Not all of Sbraga’s restaurants had the same ownership.
Though the chef’s name was on all of them, and they were all ostensibly managed by the company called Sbraga Dining, they had different financial backers calling the shots.
This helps explain why the King of Prussia branch of the Fat Ham, which began serving last September, remains open.
Last week, Sbraga told Philly.com he “intends to reopen” both his Philadelphia restaurants, potentially with new names or concepts — an idea that indicates these shutters weren’t landlord-driven.
It’s also an idea some in the industry found laughable, privately responding with comments like, “Uh, ‘reconcepting,’ sure,” and “Yeah, prob not gonna happen.”
It still doesn’t explain the briskness of last week’s shutdown.
When the closing was announced, employees were offered assistance in finding new positions — Sbraga had apparently already reached out to several Philly restaurateurs with multiple ventures for help in placing his former staff.
And according to several people, Sbraga had been floating talk of rebranding one or both of his Philadelphia establishments for the better part of a year, but couldn’t get his investors on board.
The backers had reportedly already agreed to a refinancing and cash-infusion loan once before. At this point, although they still think Sbraga is “a brilliant chef,” they were not interested in “throwing good money after bad.”