For Austin foodies, 2016 was a year to watch, with several well-known Austin restaurants shuttering and others changing concepts not long after opening.
The year started with the closing of downtown French restaurant LaV, whose owner, Ralph Eads, said it was not “fiscally feasible” to continue operating at the current level.
Several other Austin restaurants cited high costs or trouble with lease negotiations as reasons for shuttering, including The Brass House, a downtown Austin jazz and blues bar that shuttered in October; Anderson Lane’s Fork & Vine Wine Bar, which closed in June after a year and a half in business; and Italian restaurant Osteria Al Fico, which closed in May after being unable to renegotiate its lease.
On South Congress Avenue, several restaurants shuttered because of a change in ownership or a mixed-use development taking over.
Doc’s Motorworks, whose last day at 1123 S. Congress Ave. was Dec. 23, originally intended to stay through the end of its current lease—two years—after learning mixed-use development Music Lane Mixed Use would take over Doc’s and several of its neighbors along the corridor.
But because of the anticipated disruption in business from the upcoming construction, Doc’s owners decided in November to negotiate a buyout of the current lease. Doc’s is actively seeking a new space, according to a news release.
Snack Bar owner Bethany Andrée closed the restaurant Oct. 30 after learning her rent would increase 60 percent from 2015 to 2018. She then negotiated a buyout with new owners Greenfield Partners LLC and gave her employees a 20 percent salary severance package.
Andrée said she has not found anywhere affordable to reopen Snack Bar.
Meanwhile, several restaurant groups have closed one food concept only to change it to something different. West Sixth Street’s Benji's Cantina was transformed into Kung Fu Saloon, restaurateur Bridget Dunlap changed East Austin’s Mettle to a sports bar called Trackside, and Olivia on South Lamar Boulevard rebranded into owner James Holmes’ Lucy’s on the Fly.
Food and hospitality publicist Paula Biehler, who represents clients such as Tacodeli, Salty Sow, Whisler’s and Dock & Roll, said there are a variety of reasons restaurants close, including poor location, competition and lack of appeal to the diner.
Despite the closures in 2016, she said in the past 18 months, there has also been “tremendous growth” in the Austin restaurant community.
“The restaurant industry is, by nature, volatile,” she said. “And in a growing market like Central Texas, in order to be successful, restaurateurs must be financially savvy, as well as in touch with the modern diner's changing expectations, which are increasingly becoming more about the desire for approachable, simple fare.”
Andrée said she thinks a big reason for the Austin restaurant closures is the competition.
“If you’re not new, you’re not cool,” she said.
She encouraged people to visit the small, mom-and-pop restaurants that may be off the beaten path and not write them off completely if diners have one bad experience.
“If people like a place and they have ties [and] memories to it, they have to remember to go there and give them their constructive criticism,” she said.
In a recent news release, global industry company NPD Group said restaurant traffic nationwide would remain stalled in 2017, with little to no growth in the food-service market.
“Restaurant operators are in a position to alter the current forecast but will need to differentiate themselves from the competition,” said Bonnie Riggs, NPD Group’s restaurant industry analyst. “In the year ahead, it will be critical for them to stay relevant in consumers’ minds, focusing on innovative products, unique promotions, competitive pricing, stating the benefits of eating at restaurants [versus] home and delivering an enjoyable experience.”
*This list is not comprehensive