It's Getting Better — Not Worse — for San Diego Restaurants - Voice of San Diego

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It's Getting Better — Not Worse — for San Diego Restaurants

Things didn’t work out for Jay Porter, but that’s not San Diego’s fault. As a restaurateur, I do feel like I have the opportunity to succeed here.

With three restaurants in San Diego, suffice it to say, I have a somewhat different feeling about the city than Jay Porter does.

Letters logoI opened my first restaurant here in North Park in 2007, and recently opened two more in Encinitas and Del Mar. Before that, I lived in San Francisco and Sonoma for a number of years, so I’m familiar with the challenges and idiosyncrasies of Northern California as well.

By far the most difficult part of succeeding in business in San Diego comes down to the fact that we’re in California. It has nothing to do with city policies.

This state is an expensive place to do business, and it gets more expensive every year. If Porter thought it was difficult here before, it’s about to get even tougher with two raises in the minimum wage and health care mandates that were postponed for businesses until January 2015. (Of course, those are state or federal mandates.)

It’s not that I don’t support those things — I do. But if you go to San Francisco, in any restaurant like mine, you’d pay $18 for a hamburger. Any entree on my current menu would be $5 to $10 more expensive there. It’s just the cost of doing business in a city that has health care mandates already in place, a tourism tax and super high cost of living.

When the minimum wage hikes take effect and when businesses all start paying for employees’ health care, we will all have to pass that cost on to consumers, or shut our doors. We will all have to be savvy operators to continue to turn a profit.

Here’s what I’ve learned throughout my years owning restaurants: There are tons of things we have to manage on a daily basis to survive. But if we focus on one main thing, the rest tend to follow (assuming you have a profitable business model on paper).

That one main thing is simply providing a great guest experience. Places like The Linkery, which was so focused on its mission, sometimes lose sight of this. Porter set a high bar for many, but also had some very public struggles with perceived value and service.

I have nothing but respect for what he tried to do at The Linkery. But I think his audience was narrower than he hoped, and that made it incredibly difficult to make money. The IRS’s recent decision to get rid of automatic gratuities throughout the U.S. would have made it even harder for him. His payroll would have been a bureaucratic nightmare under the new system.

The Linkery took “local purchasing” to an extreme — a good extreme, one that served as an example for the rest of us. But the reality is, profiting from local-only is challenging.

San Diego isn’t like San Francisco or New York. While we do have a large contingent of people who support organic or local farms, natural meats, local beer, etc., it’s maybe not quite as high as these major metropolitan areas.

Our city is more sprawling. We have less of a centralized demographic of people looking for a “farm to table” or organic dining experience, and more of an uphill battle motivating customers to visit our businesses just for these features.

Many in San Diego and elsewhere bash us for being a second-tier food town. That’s not true. You just have to work a little harder to find the hidden gems in our spread-out city.

I take issue with Porter’s point that we don’t have a communal experience. North Park, for example — I feel like the neighborhood has become the strongest I’ve seen it since we moved in to start construction back in 2006. We’re a tight community of businesses, with many different visions and types of services to offer. And while some people struggled, 2013 was the best year on the books for Urban Solace.

San Diego could have made it a lot more difficult for us to get through permitting and construction. Liquor licenses and neighborhood pushback were challenging, but worth it. We’re lucky to have allies in city offices who want us to succeed, and have worked to help the hospitality industry by easing ordinances for sidewalk cafes and backyard growers, for example.

It’s getting better. San Diego is growing its reputation as a food town across the U.S. As a restaurateur, I do feel like I have the opportunity to succeed here.

I know that not all of my customers care if the beef is “never ever” or the eggs are local. But if I make them a fantastic meal and serve it with style, I keep them coming back, and the business survives.

Matt Gordon is the owner and chef of Urban Solace, Solace & the Moonlight Lounge and Sea & Smoke. Gordon’s note has been lightly edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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