Last week, when I wrote the first draft of this column, it started out with some quip about Boise's newly established trend of closing a downtown restaurant a month. This week—after the announcement of two downtown restaurant closings—that joke seems more like salt in open wounds. Last Friday 8th Street Wine Co. announced its closure and over the weekend, word quickly spread that Satchel's Grill will close effective Saturday, Aug. 23.
Three weeks ago, in this very column I delivered news of 8th Street Wine Co.'s intention to liquidate the inventory of its wine shop in order to expand the dining room. At the time, I wrote the piece with some skepticism, sensing that maybe I wasn't getting the whole story from owner Erik McLaughlin but nonetheless, hoping for the best. If I were to put that same intuition to work and say what I think is yet to come down the road, I'd surmise we're in for at least one more local closure in BoDo, and I wouldn't be surprised if a little farther north on the Eighth Street corridor we lost a restaurant or two.
Satchel's, however, is one closing I didn't see coming. Owner Dominic DeLaquil has been interviewed by darn near every media outlet in the city since the news broke, and it's a story we've heard again and again over the last few months. The rising price of food and gas coupled with a lag in business has put many local businesses—particularly restaurants—in between a financial rock and a hard place.
A few Satchel's regulars, though, won't let the restaurant go down without a fight. Tuesday night after BW went to press, a group gathered at Satchel's in an effort to form a coalition to save the Bannock Street eatery. Reactionary formation of citizen coalitions, "save" mantras and last-ditch efforts to ward off what could be inevitable change—it all sounds like a case of "save the spotted owl habitat from encroaching suburban development."
And while that might seem like an apt metaphor as many Boise restaurants establish suburban locations, Downtown Boise Association's Executive Director Karen Sander points out, it's not just downtown eateries being affected by hard times.
"We're seeing closings that are very unfortunate," said Sander. "But it's valley wide. Certainly downtown is a focus, but we have 80 dining choices in a 60 block radius." Although the handful of closings downtown in the last few months have been high-profile restaurants, Sander said downtown has also had 10 openings since June 2007. She added that some downtown restaurants have had their best year ever.
Dave Krick, owner of Bittercreek Ale House and Red Feather Lounge, echoes Sander's comments. Citing Bardenay and Chandlers among several others, Krick said he's encouraged to see a few downtown eateries doing some of the best business in their histories.
"We have a high concentration of local independent restaurants downtown that are highly engaged in the community, so it tends to be high profile when they fail," said Krick. "Across the city, we have a high concentration of restaurant chains and while they make a big splash when they open, people tend not to notice when they close."
Another point Krick and Sander are both quick to make is that downtown Boise has had an unprecedented period of growth in the restaurant business over the last several years.
"Some say we may have overbuilt the restaurant economy downtown," said Krick. "There was a lot of optimism and things did shift, but it's bound to balance itself out."
Interestingly enough, the number of visitors to downtown Boise isn't waning, perhaps adding to the frustration of some restaurateurs.
"I think Erik McLaughlin put it well when he said their numbers had increased but that people were making different choices as to what they spend," said Sander.
Just how long it will take the restaurant business to find some economic equilibrium remains to be seen. In the meantime, Krick and Sander are both putting out positive statements and hoping the recent spate of negative press from one TV news outlet in particular will subside. In September, DBA will host a restaurant forum to work with local owners on developing a once or twice annual promotion, like a restaurant week inviting the public into restaurants in a downtown-wide event.
My advice? If you have a favorite restaurant, now is a good time to go support it.