Updated 1:30 p.m.
The end has come for The Rooster, the charitable culinary experiment from the team behind award-winning Zahav.
Almost exactly five years after it was first introduced via an ultra-successful Kickstarter — which saw 1,500 people raise nearly $180,000 for the project — the philanthropic restaurant is closing for good, proprietors announced Tuesday. Their last day serving customers will be Saturday, June 8.
The dining industry is notoriously unpredictable, and even during booms, places close all the time. But because of The Rooster’s unique mission, this hits the Philly food scene especially hard.
The Center City luncheonette, which opened in early 2017 after several years of planning, had a unique structure. It was set up as a for-profit operation, yet 100 percent of those proceeds went directly to charity via a partnership with Broad Street Ministry, the alternative church center that helps Philadelphians experiencing homelessness and hunger.
“This tiny, subterranean diner sparked a national conversation about the role of hospitality in building a just society,” The Rooster’s partners wrote in an open letter announcing the shutdown. “It made a statement that the business and not-for-profit worlds can be natural allies — not adversaries — in the fight against the intractable problems that face our society.”
The charitable project was a venture of Steve Cook and Michael Solomonov, aka CookNSolo, as well as their partners at Federal Donuts.
So why close? The restaurant wasn’t actually generating any profits to donate, according to Cook.
“When you’re running a restaurant whose only mission is generating funds for our nonprofit partner, well, if we’re not generating funds, it doesn’t make sense,” Cook told Billy Penn in an interview.
When ‘hype’ is not enough
The Rooster did have some months that were profitable. As of May 2017, it was making $500 a week, per an Inquirer report, and in the first year a total of $16,000 was donated to Broad Street Ministry.
But it had been steadily losing money for “awhile,” Cook said, explaining that in recent months, the restaurant required a regular infusion of funds to keep operating.
He cited insufficient traffic at the below-ground Sansom Street spot as the main source of the revenue woes. “In the times we’re in now, you kind of have to hit it right away,” Cook said. “We got a lot of hype and a lot of press, but I don’t know that the restaurant ever lived up to that.”
Launched as Rooster Soup Co., the restaurant went through a few iterations over its two years in business.
Its original name stemmed from the idea that sparked the whole effort — and may also have been its undoing. Hatched during a crowded car ride back from a planning meeting for FedNuts’ 7th Street commissary, the thought was to use the backs and bones left over from the mini-chain’s popular fried chicken dishes to make soup.
But soup is only a real draw during certain times of the year. And though Rooster’s menu always had plenty of other options, from sandwiches to milkshakes to salads, proprietors struggled to get that message across.
“Even though soup was only a small part of our menu, it seemed to be keeping people away,” the partners wrote in an open letter sent June 2018, which announced the “soup”-less new branding as The Rooster.
‘A beacon for what can be accomplished’
The Rooster’s other struggle was with consistency. Though both Esquire and Food & Wine included the spot on its “best new” lists in its first year, Inquirer critic Craig LaBan expressed disappointment with many of the dishes he tried. In his two-bell review, he chalked up the sketchy execution to the tight quarters of the subterranean kitchen.
How is it that a venture from the team behind so many of the city’s hotspots, including runaway hit hummusiya Dizengoff and knockout falafel joint Goldie, could fail to make a buck?
In addition to not getting things perfect right out of the gate, Cook said, the culinary business is just confusingly fickle.
“I’d love to tell you that we know what we’re doing, but every restaurant is different,” he said. “Some of them work for reasons that you just can’t explain. Like, I think I know why Zahav’s sucessful” — the modern Israeli gem in Society Hill recently won the top prize at what’s known as the Oscars of the food world — “but I don’t know that I’d bet on it.”
The partners aren’t letting themselves get sentimental about it, Cook said, because they’re proud of what they’ve accomplished.
Broad Street Ministry’s executive director, Mike Dahl, confirmed that the restaurant meant more than just money. “The Rooster has and will continue to serve as a beacon for what can be accomplished when creative minds across sectors come together to solve our community’s problems,” he said in an emailed statement.
Plus, the philanthropic mission lives on.
The restaurant space will remain vacant for now, until a potential operator comes forward to take it over, but “we’re actively pursuing a way to keep the brand alive,” Cook said, mentioning the possibility of a retail venture.
“There’s no guarantees in life,” he said, “but this might not be the end of The Rooster.”