The first time Neill Howell stopped by Banksy’s Cafe to get a bite to eat was also the last time. “It took 25 minutes to get a simple sandwich,” he recalls. In a twist of fate, though, when he and his wife, Emily, moved away from her hometown of Baltimore then returned in 2011, Howell again found himself standing in the space—not to eat at Banksy’s, which had closed, but to consider renting the location for a cafe concept of his own. Although the spot at the corner of Falls Road and Lake Avenue had changed hands a few times through the years—from Glas Z Café through to Banksy’s—Neill and Emily weren’t daunted.
“I never thought of this spot as being cursed,” says Howell of The Corner Pantry, his now-two-year-old British-influenced cafe, though he knew that was the talk at the time. “I have to admit that in the beginning, there were days when we’d see tons of cars going up Falls Road, and yet it would be empty in here. And I would wonder.”
Opening a restaurant is risky business under any circumstances. In a typical year, about 60,000 restaurants open and 50,000 close, according to the National Restaurant Association (though restaurants close for many reasons and that number can’t be attributed completely to failures). Restaurateur Robbin Haas, co-owner of Birroteca, The Nickel Taphouse, and Encantada, sums up the obstacles like this: “Opening a restaurant is like getting a root canal with no anesthesia.”
Ned Atwater has had his share of pain. When he opened a stall in July 2010 inside the Annapolis Market House, the historic structure with throngs of tourists, water views, and old-town charm seemed like the ideal locale for his soup-and-sandwich cafe concept. But despite his rapidly expanding empire, with six outlets to date, the harborside space never took off. By December 2011, after trying to stick it out, Atwater decided to pull the plug. “We went in during one of the many attempts to revitalize,” says Atwater. “From a distance, it seemed like a perfect fit, but there was just something about it—restaurant owners do have their superstitions about things.”
Some industry experts pooh-pooh the concept of a hex. “There’s no such thing as a cursed space,” says Pierpoint’s Nancy Longo, who has had a restaurant in Fells Point for 27 years. “But what can happen is that the demographics of a neighborhood change and people stop going to a particular place.”
Once there’s a perception that a place is “cursed,” however, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. “There’s a halo effect that can occur—and it’s hard to overcome that,” theorizes industry consultant Dean Haskell, a founder of National Retail Concept Partners. “There are a lot of variables that restaurant locations need before a successful one is chosen, and sometimes, for the sake of price, restaurateurs will choose a less-than-optimal site and it will get a reputation as being a bad site for a restaurant.”
So why do some restaurants succeed while others flop?
Restaurant and hospitality consultant Arlene Spiegel of Arlene Spiegel & Associates works with restaurants across the country, including Grillfire at The Hotel at Arundel Preserve in Hanover. She says what’s critical to opening a successful eatery is to try to “understand the demographics and the psychographics of the population you’re trying to attract.
“Opening a restaurant is like getting a root canal with no anesthesia.”
“Whether there’s a failed restaurant in the space or a from-scratch, brand new build-out, it’s important to figure out the people you are serving,” she says. “What has worked and what hasn’t worked, and why? If you’re a doughnut and coffee shop, for example, are you on the right side of the highway? Is there a burning void for great bagels and pastrami that no one else is doing that will have people going out of their way because you’re the only one doing it in an authentic way? In cities, in particular, where there’s competition and occupancy costs are high, there are always some that will do well even on the same block where others are going to fail.”
Bottom line, says Spiegel: “There really aren’t any bad locations, there are just bad fits.”
That said, it doesn’t take a degree from the Culinary Institute of America to know that bad parking, a flawed concept, or poor location can lead to the demise of a restaurant. But other times, the reasons can be harder to explain.
Case in point: the Hess Shoes store in Belvedere Square. For generations, customers flocked to Hess Shoes for its hair “snippery” and sliding board. But transforming the space into a restaurant concept has yet to work. (The verdict is still out on The Starlite Diner, which had yet to open at press time.) After Belvedere Square was redeveloped, Taste opened there in 2004, followed by Crush in 2008, which met its demise in 2012. Even the James Beard-winning Spike Gjerde couldn’t make a go of the space with Shoo-Fly Diner, which opened in October 2013 and had served its last order of “hush doggies” by May 2015.
“That place has been tough,” observes Atwater, who has a cafe in Belvedere Square that has taken over much of the shopping center. “You might say that its soul was that old Hess shoe store and that changing the concept was too much. That place was an institution in that neighborhood. When you were a kid, you’d go there to get your really cool sneakers when you turned 12. People still miss it. It’s like a wound that takes time to heal.”
Spike’s brother, Charlie, is no stranger to restaurant spots with a spell. In his 25 years as a restaurateur, Gjerde has owned and operated many eateries. “When we opened Spike & Charlie’s, we heard that it was a cursed location, a cursed corner,” recalls Charlie. “Before Spike & Charlie’s, it had been like three things—Ethel’s Place, Blue’s Alley, a reggae bar—and none of them stayed opened for very long.” Spike & Charlie’s, on the other hand, remained in business for 13 years, closing only when Charlie decided he wanted a break in 2004. And though the spell seemed to be broken, the so-called “curse” started all over again after the closing of Spike & Charlie’s, with 23rd Degree Restaurant & Wine Bar, Robert Oliver Seafood, and Mari Luna having notably short runs. (Ryleigh’s Oyster is there now and seems to be thriving.)
“There’s a formula to running a restaurant,” believes Charlie, who now co-owns Papi’s Tacos and Alexander’s Tavern in Fells Point, as well as Huck’s American Craft in Brewers Hill. “But there’s also this intangible element that plays into that formula. Most of it I know—location, parking, good food, good service. But that last piece I don’t.”
About 60,000 restaurants open in the U.S. each year and 50,000 close.
Gjerde’s Papi’s, which opened in March 2014, is at another supposedly troubled spot. Prior to Papi’s, the taco joint was a few different bar-restaurants. Before becoming Papi’s, business was so bad at J.A. Murphy’s that it was featured on Spike TV’s Bar Rescue. Even with the advice, some sprucing up, and a name change to Murphy’s Law, the Fells Point place shuttered its doors only a few months after the makeover. Yet, with Papi’s, Gjerde has had a hit on his hands.
“That’s my best restaurant,” he says. And while he believes the reasonable price points and popular DIY tacos concept help explain the success, Gjerde says that’s not the whole story. Sheer serendipity has also been a factor. “Kevin Spacey [who films in Fells for House of Cards] latched onto us and came in several times,” says Gjerde. “You go into a little restaurant like Papi’s and see Kevin Spacey, and business really starts to build. You can’t plan for that.”
Other area long-suffering spots also seem to have found more permanent tenants. To wit: Birroteca, which was the dank and dingy Kolper’s Restaurant & Tavern (the site of a double stabbing in 2009, no less), then the short-lived Mill Steakhouse before Haas opened his brewpub there. He got a good deal because the space sat empty for a long time. “I didn’t know anything about the history of the spot when I came from Miami,” says Haas. “I was like, ‘This is great. We will get it for next to nothing.’” Haas’s ignorance-is-bliss approach has worked in his favor. “The equivalent would be that you bought a house in Guilford, and it’s a 100-year-old home, and someone died in there 50 years ago,” says Haas. “You might not know. I’m not freaked out about stuff like that—the past is past.”
That’s been true for The Corner Pantry as well. One Monday morning, it’s clear that the curse—if there ever was one—has been broken, as patrons queue up for Cornish pasties. The dark, unappealing space that once was is long gone. Emily Howell, who helped redesign the area into a light-filled bakery, carries plates of the cafe’s signature “pop tarts” from the kitchen. “Before this, nothing lasted,” says Howell. “We transformed it.”
For now, the verdict is still out on Haas’s newest restaurant, which has also opened in a long unsuccessful location. Back when Joy America Café opened at the American Visionary Art Museum in 1998, it was highly hailed. (“Run—don’t walk,” said then Sun dining critic Elizabeth Large.) By 2006, it had run its course. Three years later, Mr. Rain’s Fun House tried to make a go of it, but in 2014, it, too, served its final meal. In July 2015, Haas moved in with Encantada. “It’s a tough space,” he says. “It’s a work in progress.”
But Haas is not concerned about a curse. “I’m not spooked at all,” he says. “I had a black cat. I walk under ladders. As long as you don’t drop a paint can on me, I’m just fine.”