Chef Sohocki: I Still Believe in Downtown
on 28 February, 2014 at 05:00
When I originally wrote “Why I Closed Lunch at Restaurant Gwendolyn,” I hoped to prompt some thought and discussion. The response that followed on the Rivard Report and on social media astounded me. I hope these discussions can channel the passion about rebuilding downtown into action.
I’d like to clear up some misconceptions that seem to have arisen about my work and the struggles of owning a small business downtown. While dinner at Gwendolyn is a fine-dining experience, I wanted customers to consider lunch more like a picnic, with bread baked in house and the same local and sustainable sourcing as dinner at accessible prices.
When my customers ordered a $7 sandwich or a $10 lunch combination of a soup, sandwich and tea, they supported the work of local farmers, ranchers and artisans, and choosing hand-crafted food over factory farms and assembly lines.
Across the street from my businesses sits a Bill Miller Bar-B-Q and its lunch service is packed, largely because it’s familiar and cheap. But it’s not a “restaurant,” and its business model is completely different from mine.
Food is not made at any location of Bill Miller’s. There is a gigantic production facility — a factory, really — that smokes millions of pounds of beef, chicken and sausages, where beans are heated in great steam-jacketed swimming pools, where great mountains of potatoes and mayonnaise and boiled eggs are turned and flopped by the dumpster load. In the morning, white trucks take them to the different outlets that serve the fast food barbecue. The food is held above steam pans and beneath heat lamps until you walk in and it is scooped into Styrofoam trays for you by staff members who work hard but aren’t cooks.
Still, even the Bill Miller across the street is usually dead outside of the 30-minute lunchtime window. But they are built to thrive on a sudden rush. Their system is remarkably flexible; if one scooper quits, they’ll get another part-time scooper. There are also issues of class and social structure involved in this business model, but I’ll just say that the building across the street isn’t a restaurant; it’s an industrial cafeteria.
Between Gwendolyn and Kimura, I have 20 employees, four broken refrigerators and an ailing 30-year-old grease trap. I also hold down my own pastry station at Gwendolyn, and often work as the dishwasher and the valet. I routinely work 72 hours each week and am grateful for the opportunity to do so.
Still, the extra challenges of owning a business in downtown San Antonio can wear down even the most passionate of my staff. We struggle to find parking. The Travis Garage is booked solid and we use surface lots, but if we stay longer than the 10 hours they have paid for (we can’t afford to pay for 24 hours), we find our cars getting towed.
Existing regulations may work fine for the large chains elsewhere on the River Walk, but they are out of proportion for a small business like me. When I tried to bring a little visibility to my restaurants, whether with a vinyl sign over the patio facing the river or an A-frame valet sign or making custom benches and potted Japanese maples to beautify my little corner, I am threatened with fines and litigation if I don’t take them down. We still don’t have a sign that says Kimura anywhere on the restaurant. It’s been eight months now. We just don’t want to get arrested.
The point is, if you want to make downtown livable and manageable, businesses like mine need to have clear rules for doing business and supportive conditions that allow us to thrive.
I appreciate the insight of Regan Turner and Robert Rivard, and recognize that the changes we need in our downtown must be sweeping and bold.
I know from living in San Francisco that even in a lower- to middle-income area, you will see mixed occupancy. I’m no real estate developer or politician, but what San Francisco surely does have is the incentive for the development of thriving civilization.
In San Antonio, we have issues of property rights and municipal codes, low tax assessments, lack of property owner motivation, land speculation, stakeholders’ interest. (For the full description, please see “Ghost Buildings Haunt San Antonio’s ‘Decade of Downtown.”)
But what are the incentives? What are we, as a community, encouraging?
Hotels are doing well. Large multimillion dollar chain restaurants (McDonalds, Hard Rock Café) seem to be doing well. Powerful company headquarters (such as VisionWorks) seem to be doing well. Companies that thrive on tourism in that classic Fisherman’s Wharf kind of way seem to be doing well.
What tax incentives or other developmental incentives exist for small business owners, small would-be residential developers or small would-be grocery store owners? Who in the city can tell me how I can promote my business with a sign that won’t run afoul of regulations? How can I, and other small business owners, work with the city, existing business owners and the few residents of downtown to strengthen our livelihoods?
I opened my businesses because I believe in downtown as a home of fine dining, and I keep my doors open because customers support our mission of expertly preparing and serving local and sustainable food. Despite the issues of parking and visibility, Kimura is slowly gaining a steady following.
You water the plants you want to grow. If there is to be a healthy downtown, you must nurture the healthy growth of its parts.