Free State Brewing Co. has been a mainstay on downtown's northern side for 19 years. Proprietor Chuck Magerl doesn't mince words in explaining why he believes the line of people waiting for tables spills out the door and into the street on the weekends.
"We have really tried to maintain a position as a good-value business ever since the start, and we think for the quality of the food and beverage that we provide, people realize, 'Hey, we can stretch our dollar a lot further than we can in some other places,'" Magerl said. "And so I think that is still holding our business in good stead."
Other Lawrence staples haven't been so lucky in the past year, closing for a variety of reasons. Among the longtime Lawrence eating establishments to shut their doors are Bucky's Drive In, 2120 W. Ninth St.; Don's Steakhouse, 2176 E. 23rd St.; Mass. Street Deli, 941 Mass.; and Joe's Bakery, 616 W. Ninth St., as well as New Hampshire Street Bistro, 811 N.H.
Bob Schumm ran Mass. Street Deli for 34 years before closing it in February 2007 and selling the building. It's now occupied by Genovese. He also owns Buffalo Bob's BBQ Smokehouse, 719 Mass., Schumm Food Co., which does catering, as well as the buildings at 717, 719 and 721 Mass. He said things are only going to get more difficult for local restaurants.
"I'd expect more restaurants to go out of business next year than start up. I think you'll have fewer restaurants by the end of '09 than you do now, just because of the high numbers that we have," Schumm said. "The market is supersaturated."
Owner Gary Bartz closed Don's Steakhouse in January, ending the restaurant's longtime run of 42 years. The building is home to the soon-to-open Lone Steer BBQ. Joe's Bakery closed down in October days after new owners Rebecca and Ron Hall decided to cut store hours because staying open late wasn't working: "It wasn't prosperous," Rebecca Hall said then. New Hampshire Street Bistro closed in November a little more than a year after owner and chef Michael Levy renamed and moved the former Westside Deli & Bistro. Levy told the Journal-World at the time that "timing and market conditions were not on our side."
Jumping in with two feet
That sort of saturation didn't scare away the people behind two of Lawrence's newest locally owned restaurants - Ingredient, 945 Mass., and Global Cafe, 820 Mass., which both opened in July.
"We're doing very well," said Ingredient's managing partner, Steve Kerner. "We're doing better than we projected - we're doing about 50 percent better than we thought we'd do."
Kate Gonzalez, who opened Global Cafe with her husband, Rafael, said they dove into the restaurant business to fulfill a longtime dream and that they just wanted to create "something people would enjoy coming to." Their restaurant is earth-friendly and has a more funky, casual feel.
"Seems like all those kinds of places have gone away downtown and made way for more corporate-looking establishments," Gonzalez said. "We thought (our concept) would really fit in with Lawrence."
Getting a treat
Adding to the fuel to the competition among restaurants trying to fit into Lawrence is the slowing economy, which, burdened by the credit crunch, a flood of foreclosures and the specter of a recession, means more people are preparing food at home.
"People have far less expendable income or discretionary income today than they did in the mid- to late-'90s. So that takes a toll on restaurants. That's one of the easy things they can lop off when they run out of money," Schumm said. "If you just think about if you eat out four times a week - which would be a small number when you consider breakfast, lunch and dinner - and you decide just to cut back a little and you only eat out three times a week. That's a 25 percent decrease in sales right there if everyone did that, and that's spread across the market, (it) will cost a lot of grief in restaurants' sales receipts."
Subarna Bhattachan, co-owner of three very different downtown restaurants - La Parrilla, 814 Mass., Zen Zero, 811 Mass., and Genovese, 941 Mass. - said that the slowing economy and the rising cost of food have affected how he and business partner Alejandro Lule are attracting business.
"We are putting special items to entice people to come in. We're getting creative with our specials and menu," Bhattachan said. "We realize when there's economic slowdown people tighten their budget, so we've made the menu a little bit more geared toward that."
Magerl said that although Free State is not hurting for business - it even has decided to venture into regional bottling within the past few months - the slowing economy has shown signs at 636 Mass., as it has most everywhere.
"One of the things that we certainly have noticed is that perhaps some of the weeknights ... may not be as busy as they have in the past, but certainly the weekends are just as busy as they always have been," Magerl said. "I think people still appreciate the opportunity to go out and be out and about in the community and have a chance to have something that is kind of a little treat in their life. If people are putting off buying a new car, it's still a way to pamper yourself a little bit to say, 'Hey, let's go out and grab a bit to eat.' And it isn't as much of a budget-breaker as some items might be."