In August, when Milwaukee Brewers player Ryan Braun was handed a suspension for the rest of the 2013 season, a Milwaukee restaurant group held its breath.
After all, the former MVP player’s name was linked to two eateries owned by SURG Restaurant Group: Ryan Braun’s Graffito and 8-Twelve MVP Bar & Grill (a partnership with Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers). Yet not more than a month passed before swift decisions were made and the partnership dissolved. Graffito removed Braun’s name but vowed to wait until December to close. 8-Twelve was reborn as Hom Wood Fired Grill with plans to open on October 7.
Restaurants close for a variety of reasons like slow sales, tainted business partnerships, or the owner’s desire to step into a different career. Yet many restaurants reopen with new energy, taking a pause to update the interior, test new recipes, or scout out a better location. These closures can last from two weeks to two years. At risk is a loss of customers but on the flipside are opportunities to attract a new demographic.
Fog City Diner is a legendary eatery in San Francisco, open since 1985. In March it closed for extensive remodeling – basically gutting the entire restaurant – and reopened on September 23. Taking that long to reopen is a gamble but with such strong name recognition the owners were confident Fog City Diner would still be hot come fall. Thus far, the location had been a success and the customers dream clientele. Finding a new spot for the restaurant was out of the question. What needed to be changed were the details.
“The concept was that it was a diner with contemporary California cuisine,” explains co-owner Bill Higgins, who worked tirelessly on the new concept with chef/owner Bruce Hill and co-founder Bill Upson. “It got a lot of attention worldwide. The more popular it became, the more difficult it became for Californians to embrace. The diner aspect of the restaurant became worn-out, irrelevant.”
Though keeping the same name, “the only thing we retained is the hamburger,” says Higgins. Now, when customers walk into the dining room they can see all the way through to the San Francisco Bay thanks to beefed-up natural lighting and windows.
“I think we’re going to be tapping into our old demographic and the young, hip food-obsessed group in San Francisco,” says Higgins, who added a menu of artisan cocktails to the roster to help appeal to the new crowd. To market the new restaurant, Fog City Diner hired a publicist to get the word out to local media and didn’t hide the fact that construction was taking place given the high-traffic location along the Embarcadero.
At Oceanique in Evanston, Illinois, owner Mark Grosz took on an ambitious project in July for its 25th anniversary: redoing most of its interior during a three-week closure. Three high-top tables were added, as were dining-room chairs, a communal table, wider-seat bar stools, light fixtures and booths (reducing the number of seats to 82). A new small-plates menu was also rolled out, as was an artisan-cocktails menu. Yet the focus on wine stayed the same: there continues to be 700 selections on the list.
The restaurant always closes for two weeks around the Fourth of July, meaning only one week of business was lost. Grosz describes the intensity involved in creating Oceanique’s new chapter. “Stress levels were elevated. These guys, the construction crew, they don’t really care (about the timeline). They have other projects going on. The stress was created by not having control over what’s happening.” Ongoing communication between contractors and the restaurant owner can help diffuse some of that stress.
To get the word out about the new look, Grosz – like Higgins – hired a publicist. He also utilized an email list of 2,500 people.
Back in Milwaukee, at Pizza Man, owner Mike Amidzich strolls around the dining room of his pizzeria. In 2010, a fire caused the business to perish; it could have been death of the restaurant, but instead Amidzich chose new life. A two-story modern restaurant – in the same neighborhood as its predecessor, but on a different block – houses a lighter, brighter, and roomier pizzeria than the one that has attracted thousands of people over the years. The menu is the same and so is the wine list (a focus on boutique California wineries). Getting a table on a weekend night is nearly impossible. As Amidzich chats with patrons, he thanks them for coming back.
By Kristine Hansen