Closed_sign_HawkinsRestaurants come and go. Aspiring chefs, people who have money to invest, and those encouraged by friends and family with money to invest decide to open concept restaurants without researching the food and the area.

Usually these folks have no understanding of how the food industry works (if they aren’t an experienced chef). Whether it is due to high food cost, bad management, or an ill-conceived concept placed in a non-supportive or hard to get to location, they fail, and fail hard. Doors close as fast as they open.

In Phoenix and the surrounding area mortality rates of restaurants is high. There is stiff competition. It’s a food town. We have everything from tacos to BBQs to modern American fare. Big named chefs fail (Brian Malarkey); small mom and pops fail. So why do some restaurants succeed? Some have big $$ behind them (Fox Concept Restaurants-Flower Child) and concepts with clear, concise goals stand side-by-side with solid management.

Here is how a restaurant goes down:

  • Mistake #1 – Hiring your best friend to be your front house manager or chef, depending on the situation/role of those involved.
  • Mistake #2 – Poorly researched concept. Is there enough business in the area to support your idea/restaurant? Can you keep returning customers?
  • Mistake #3 – High food cost. Buying through grocery stores instead of food purveyors-companies that carry your product and can offer wholesale prices.
  • Mistake #4 – High labor cost. Over-paying employees when you are still new. Even established restaurants make this mistake.

I’ve been witness to all four of these mistakes while working in professional kitchens. I’ve worked in highly successful corporate concepts (Rainforest Café) and I’ve worked the “mom & pops” that get run into the ground due to bad management, friends “helping” out, food being given away, and money taken from the till (Emerald City–a flash in the pan in Tucson). I’ve seen high food cost and the chef not caring because they want to do it their way. Labor cost? Hire your friends and pay them well, then count the months until you close your doors.

What plagues the vegan restaurants in Phoenix? In the last six months we’ve lost That’s a Wrap (not 100% vegan, but very vegan friendly); Aside of Heart (Roosevelt Row renovation); Sage Kitchen (now a tea house), and Organic Shores (raw & organic), and at the beginning of last summer, Tsom.

All of these restaurants had a following, but none of them withstood the challenges of a restaurant-saturated market. I visited  all five, but to be fair, Organic Shores and Aside of Heart were singular visits. There were reasons for not returning to both restaurants, and I suspect they are the reasons the restaurants closed. The reason for one closure was due to unpaid rent. As for the rest, it remains a mystery. Organic Shores says to watch out for a new location. I suspect rent was really high.

The sign for Green and Nami in Phoenix, AZ.Green, run by Damon Brasch, is a concept that runs strong. With two locations plus Nami, dedicated to vegan sweet treats and home of the Tsoynami, he’s doing something right. He’s been in business for over 10 years and was one of the original minds behind That’s a Wrap (lost to bigger business and a car dealership). He oversees his kitchens, watches the till, and most of all connects with his customers and stays busy as a chef.

We can mourn the loss of some great vegan food in the Valley and these businesses can be held up as cautionary tales to future investors. Choose your concept carefully. Watch your $$. Don’t hire your friends. Use the local farms and their CSA’s for produce (even this can be pricey, you might have to switch to produce vendors). And make sure to have plenty of parking for your clientele (although this aspect doesn’t seem to be a problem for Green).

On the horizon for the Valley’s vegan diners? The latest is offered up in the downtown Phoenix area: Vegan House, opened by Lara Brooks of Tom Yum Thai in Surprise, AZ. There will be a trip and an upcoming review to let you know if it’s worth a visit when you find yourself wandering around downtown with nothing to do and a growling stomach. Also the centrally located Urban Beans is serving up some very tasty vegetarian and vegan treats, plus, they have locally roasted coffee.

And if you think you might have great vegan food, or that next awesome restaurant concept and want to start a business, remember that food trucks cost much less than brick and mortar restaurants (though they come with their own sets of challenges). That’s the way Pizza People Pub started out. Do the research, which can involve some math, and make sure you aren’t falling into any of those four restaurant mistakes.