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Restaurant Closures: Another Sign of Our Faltering Economy

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When a major manufacturing base – like the automakers – falters, it may take a while but there is a trickle-down contraction for the rest of the community.

Here in Michigan, the shuttering of restaurants is becoming commonplace as belts tighten. Last night brought news that monster upscale steak chain Morton’s of Chicago was closing its Southfield location. The Southfield Morton’s, a fixture for seventeen years, was once a lucrative franchise. A quick check online reveals that several Morton’s restaurants have recently closed, all over the country, some with little or no notice.

As luck would have it, we dined at that particular Morton’s about a month ago. It was a Saturday night and all of us remarked that the place was so empty that reservations were placed but not needed. Ten years ago the room would have been packed with diners shoulder to shoulder.

Known for aged beef, frisky live lobsters, and enormous sides including whole broccoli heads and size thirteen potatoes, Morton's was my favorite for its molten lava cake dessert.

With the country in a recession, it is not unusual for fine dining establishments to bite the dust. It happened in the early ‘80s under similar economic conditions. The “destination” restaurants – places where one would go for a special occasion dinner – are often the first to close, as the number of customers who can splurge on $100 dinners dwindles.

Destination restaurants like Morton’s, Fleming’s, and the locally based Matt Prentice Group (which includes the stunning Coach Insignia high atop the GM building in downtown Detroit, No. VI Chophouse, and Northern Lakes Seafood Company, just to name a few), have been getting creative in an attempt to draw customers in the doors. Matt Prentice regularly sends out 25%-off coupons in mass mailings and also has a frequent dining program. Morton’s and Fleming’s offer creative meals priced under $40, so one can buy into glitzy ambiance at a fairly reasonable price point.

But it’s not just the trendy eateries that are suffering. In our small town alone, the last couple of years have seen the closures of both of our Wendy’s, several coffeehouses, two rib joints, and a couple of Chinese restaurants, among others. The family diner next door has been bought and sold three times in the last five years. Two weeks ago I wanted to satisfy a craving for sushi, but when I called Mushashi, my favorite Japanese restaurant, I learned with dismay that the place has been closed since March.

Fast food joints like McDonald’s are said to be immune from the economic downturn, but if I’m going to pay good money for a restaurant meal, it’s not going to be for a Big Mac.

I’m fairly skilled in the kitchen and rarely dine out, but I am one who takes my gastronomical excursions into the realm of restaurant food seriously. As the economy continues its downward spiral, the struggles of restaurant owners will only increase.

It's a concern for a gastronome like me.

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About Joanne Huspek

I write. I read. I garden. I cook. I eat. And I love to talk about all of the above.
  • It is all just so sad. For every person laid off, there is a loss to 10 or more businesses. We don’t eat out as much (once my favorite indulgence), I spend far less on clothing, don’t get things dry cleaned, and even our food budget has taken a hit. Last night we ate some pretty lousy inexpensive beef, instead of the strip steak I was craving.

  • I used to be a Burger King manager. But if we returned to the States (returned to what – debts lousy business, a worthless dollar?) I couldn’t be one again. I wouldn’t be able to eat in any restaurant I worked in that wasn’t kosher, and truly one of the pleasures of working in a restaurant is cooking good meals for yourself – on the house.

    You have my sympathies Joanne. Make sure your dishwasher works well is all I can say.

  • Joanne, I understand where you’re coming from. Ironically, my partner and I have just closed a deal on taking over a deli-type restaurant here in the Boston market.

    It’s a hell of a gamble, but we’ve taken a very different approach to business. One of the things to be remembered here is we’ve become too dependent on a “national” economy and have forgotten one of the precepts of American business. Small business is the life blood of our economy. If we don’t support local business owners, we’re destined to fail in our respective markets and that failure will “trickle up”. Burger King, Morton’s, all these national chains have an advantage in the sense that their franchisees suffer most of the economic damage in the short run.

    I know that a lot of people can’t afford “local” merchants but this is the time for choices. We’re all making sacrifices and every day a small business fails, the local people suffer. The impact may not be immediate, but there will be an impact.

    I recall the last President when he called upon Americans to “go shopping”. As silly as it sounds, spending even a little bit helps as long as you make informed purchases. So, in echoing W’s call to shop — please, try and invest in your local merchants. Take the money away from WalMart and Target. Make a Patriotic Purchase.

    And, if all else fails, consider an alternative currency in your community. There’s a movement in the Berkshires which preserves the American ideal and should be adopted in other areas across this country. It’s time to get creative, folks. And that means not waiting for the Federal government to come to the rescue. We’ve got the ingenuity and collective intelligence to give it a try… the problem is are we motivated?

  • Tony

    Trust me, quick serve restaurants are not spared.

    Macdonalds maybe, but I own a Quiznos in Livingston County (Fowlerville). In our area numerous plants have closed or tightened their expense accounts. That, combined with the massive job loss, has destroyed my business. Pretty soon there will be like three corporate restaurants left and who knows what they will be.

  • And, if all else fails, consider an alternative currency in your community…

    An alternative currency based on what, Silas?

    The first “currency” in America was tobacco or animal fur. They had a real value, and were used in trade. Money used to have intrinsic value (remember how that siver half dollar rang when it hit the table?). Now it has no intrinsic value. No tokens that I am awaere of world-wide (I’m a coin collector) has intrinsic value aside from special issue silver and gold coins minted in certain countries – the krugerrand comes to mind as an example. So, my question to you is, what will you use that has intrinsic value?

  • You’re right about tobacco, Ruvy, and I always say that America was built on the backs of slaves and tobacco sharecroppers. Your skepticism about alternative currencies may be due to your being in Israel as opposed to the States. The Berkshire model I highlighted is a classic example of what one community is doing to stem the tide. And it is working, believe it or not. Cash is a commodity in short supply, so we in business have to find creative ways of surviving during this mess. MY goods and services HAVE intrinsic value to some. And for those people, I will work for something other than U.S. currency if need be.

    Again, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for local yokels to take a good hard look into their own communities. There’s a small business owner right in your neighborhood that needs support. We’ve become so insulated from each other that we’ve forgotten what is is that made this country great.

  • I looked up the Berkshares link you provided, Silas.

    Nothing argues with success, and nothing succeeds like success. My first question would be how to get around local sales taxes (Israel has a value added tax), and my second on would be how to get around the income tax man. Why hasn’t the IRS hounded these guys out of business?

  • Bliffle

    With the easy abundance of good fresh produce everywhere in the USA, it’s a wonder that anyone goes to a restaurant in any but the most exceptional circumstances.

  • With the easy abundance of good fresh produce everywhere in the USA, it’s a wonder that anyone goes to a restaurant in any but the most exceptional circumstances.

    Growing lettuce and tomatoes is easy. Growing seconds and minutes is the tricky crop….

  • I’m all for pumping up the local economy but sometimes you have to draw the line, especially if your own checkbook is thin. I once had a dream of working in a restaurant, of cooking for a living, but I can see that doing that wouldn’t be profitable, so I pour my labor of love into what I make at home.

    Most people have no appreciation for decent food. I stopped going into chain supermarkets long ago, when they began to shrink the fresh produce and meat sections and enlarged the frozen food departments.

    Eating local helps the economy too, and I try to do that. However, once in a while I crave persimmons, citrus fruit and seafood, things that aren’t native to Michigan.

    Restaurant closures are just another barometer of bad times.