A Philadelphia Publicist Reflects on Philadelphia’s Restaurant “Dead Zone”
In the February issue of Philadelphia Magazine, Food Editor Jason Sheehan shared an insightful peek into restaurant owners’ annual struggles between January and May. Sheehan points out that Delaware Valley restaurants’ busy season ends abruptly on New Year’s Eve with customer’s popping champagne, and doesn’t begin again until patrons toast Mother’s Day with celebratory mimosas.
Sheehan chronicles restaurateur’s reasons for suffering during these “dead months”, and explains that no restaurant is safe! From Marc Vetri to the small Asian take-out joint, every restaurateur faces those terribly dull (and lonely!) weeknights, when their dining room is completely empty. With restaurants barely filling their reservation slots over the weekends, many places are forced to endure layoffs or even shut down during winter’s dark days.
So why does this happen? Sheehan speculates that food lovers are feeling the (all too familiar) economic crunch after the holidays and are saving their pennies by cooking at home. Not to mention, sub-zero temperatures are enough to make even the most resilient foodie ditch their favorite spot and curl up in their cozy house.
I can’t say I’m not guilty of this. The frigid weather makes venturing out of my house seem less and less appealing. A cold craft-brew and a home cooked meal in my warm pajamas is so alluring that I, too, have forgone dining out lately. And, I can’t honestly say I’m against the added bonus of saving money by eating-in!
With Sheehan’s piece fresh on my mind, I couldn’t help but notice the four (count ‘em, four) chef departures from three of Philly’s top restaurants in the last week. These changes are so notable that you have to wonder if it was just time for these chefs to move on, or if winter’s “Dead Zone” is to blame.
The week started with the shocker of Philadelphia’s culinary sweetheart, George Sabatino, resigning from Stateside. Philly.com’s Michael Klein recounted Sabatino’s accomplishments in 2012, which included leading Stateside to the number one position in Philadelphia Magazine’s 50 Best Restaurants list, and being heralded as the region’s Best New Chef by The Inquirer’s Craig LaBan. Foobooz shared Stateside’s amicable well wishes for Sabatino, and noted that Sabatino is pursuing running his own restaurant in the near future!
a.kitchen’s chef Bryan Sikora said hasta la vista this past week as well. I’m certain a.kitchen won’t be the same without Sikora, who has been the Executive Chef since their opening! Foobooz and Eater noted that Sikora left with hopes of opening a bakery and cafe in Wilmington, DE called La Fia. We’ll see if that dream becomes a reality, as the location identified in the reports is a dump in the center of a ghetto mired by crime and loitering.
Le Bec-Fin’s chef change was less cordial; Executive Chef Walter Abrams, along with Abrams’ fiancé, Pastry Chef Jennifer Smith, were fired! Michael Klein believes that “money had a lot to do with it; by jettisoning the higher-priced Abrams and Smith (even for consultant’s pay) and promoting two sous chefs, some big money is off the books.”
Well Sheehan, you’re looking pretty smart right now, as it’s crystal clear that no restaurant can escape the effects of winter’s drudgery!
With that said, I agree with Sheehan’s assessment. It’s amazing that he is the first journalist to identify this annual phenomenon. Many restaurants that I have come in contact with recently are clearly hurting for business. You can feel it in the vibe of the rooms, and servers and bartenders are not prepped for a PR spin.
So I need to ask the million-dollar PR question relating to the big picture in every small restaurant in business during this vacuum. Should restaurant owners script their employees to say that business is good even when it’s not? Is a positive front critical to every customer’s perception, so that patrons spread the message that the place they just visited is hot and happening, just as they believed when they decided to spend their hard earned dollars there? Is lying about how good business is okay?
The answer is absolutely not. The customer isn’t stupid. Restaurants staffs often have an “us versus them” mentality against management and ownership, and a PR spin initiative is sure to backfire in a competitive restaurant city like Philadelphia.
A smarter plan involves newsworthy menu renovations, added-value incentives that don’t reduce the business’ overall value, and long term planning that includes public relations initiatives that interest the news media and entice the consumer. This is a pool that’s way over crowded with sharks including very sophisticated Philadelphia restaurateurs, highly competitive journalists and savvy chefs. Learn how to play the game or go elsewhere. These aren’t my rules folks — they are the cold-hard facts that rule the region’s food scene. Amateurs don’t stand a chance here. Fakers shouldn’t dare even try.
To read Jason Sheehan’s story, click here:
To read more about the recent chef departures, click here: