Friday, February 10, 2012 / 3:35 PM
Newly-opened Root restaurant, at 1135 S. Big Bend Blvd inside of Starr's wine shop, has closed after three weeks in business. Why did owner Bud Starr pull the plug so soon? It's a case of unrealistic expectations and misunderstandings.
I'll try to keep this simple, and analyze what happened at Root week by week:
Months ago, when Chef Brian Hardesty began negotiations with Bud Starr to convert the attractive restaurant space inside his wine shop into a concept restaurant named Root, he allegedly led Starr to believe that the impact would be instantaneous, that he could pack the house almost immediately, "$10,000 a week," according to Starr. Hardesty had a good following from his days at Terrene and also owned the keys to the Guerrilla Street Food truck, arguably the hottest and most well acclaimed such truck in town. In the early months of 2012, if any chef had the hot hand and the attention of the local fooderati, a case could be made for Hardesty.
But $10K/week right out of the chute is not realistic and Hardesty knew it. He told Relish that "$10,000/wk was mentioned, but as a goal, not as an immediate." He also told Starr that Root "was a long term investment." Probably not discussed was that "long term investment" often equates to "losing money for awhile." The fact is that Root opened in the middle of one of the slowest months of the restaurant year, and in a week where it went head to head with Clayton Restaurant Week, a huge 7-day draw just a few miles to the northeast. Regardless, ten large was simply not realistic in Week One.
Week Two illustrated what can happen (and should be anticipated) with any new restaurant. More than enough staff is on hand and ready; more than enough food has been prepped, but alas, the customer count is less than expected. Our opinion? No one should have been surprised... the dining public was just now discovering Root, and the savvy ones would wait at least another week or two pay a visit.
Because we were dying with anticipation, and in full disclosure, Relish dined anonymously at Root on Friday of that week. We counted 32 diners; certainly a respectable showing. Both service and food were inconsistent, a bit behind where one would have expected it to be after 10 days, but certainly well within the normal range. No cause for alarm from our end.
But behind the scenes, expectations were higher. Starr had been funding the venture and had lost money for two straight weeks. More sobering perhaps, last week (Week Three) he noted that "the numbers were down. Every weekend I was seeing fewer reservations, and there were only 24 on the books next week for Valentine's Day, a day when a rockin' new buzzed-about place should be sold out."
Compounding the situtaion was that Hardesty had been using Root as a prep kitchen for his Guerrilla operation, something that Starr was aware of, but most likely didn't think through. "On some nights, the stove and hood would remain on all night," he said. Proper allocation of food and labor were not accounted for, according to Starr, and the situation simply became untenable.
Reflecting on the closure, Starr summarized, "were it not for all the issues with the food truck, Root may have worked, but I have my doubts." Hardesty's synopsis: "I thought we both saw Root as a long-term investment. This was a real shocker after only three weeks."
There will be plenty of time for the he said-he said's. Here's today's lesson for the budding restaurant owner: Planning. Were there weekly projections? There should have been. Weekly targets for cost of food and labor? Should have been, and printed out for all to see. Accountability? Should have been. Mutually agreed-upon plans? Yes. Worst-case scenarios discussed and funded? Most certainly.
At the end of the day, and in the rear view mirror, had Hardesty funded his own operation and simply paid rent to Starr, Root might still be open.
Starr may turn his dining area back into a small event space (its original purpose) and Hardesty plans to stay busy with Guerrilla Street Food while he mulls whether or not to relaunch Root in some other location.
UPDATE: On Friday evening, it was announced that Hardesty will be the guest chef at the February 27 "Dorm Room" Dinner, an event held every month at 33 Wine Bar in Lafayette Square. One thing for sure: the conversation that evening won't be lacking.
Subscribe to Relish posts in your favorite feed reader.