Blog Archives

Recession hits Valley restaurant scene

Cafe LaBella in midtown Phoenix closed in March.

[Source: Barbara Yost, Arizona Republic] — The recession has hit the Valley restaurant scene like a smack in the head with a frying pan.  The casualty list includes some of the liveliest, most established independent venues whose demise is shocking dining experts.  Since the end of the year, at least 50 Valley restaurants — and counting — have closed.

The most recent announcement came May 29, when James Beard Award-winning chef Nobuo Fukuda said he would shutter Sea Saw in Scottsdale on June 7.  While Sea Saw, under partnership with Peter Kasperski (Cowboy Ciao,Kazimierz World Wine Bar, Digestif ), was doing fine, Fukuda says, he’s found opportunity to set up his own shop, possibly in midtown Phoenix.  “I’m just waiting for approval on the name I want, and, well, the money to do it,” he says.

As summer approaches, restaurants want to cut their losses, says David Rothschild, former culinary instructor and co-owner with wife Barbara of EATiQuette, a training service for wait staff.

Palatte, a bucolic patio with a garden setting in downtown Phoenix, closed in March.  Café Labella, run for several years by Mark and Debra LaBella in midtown Phoenix, also turned out the lights in March…

In downtown Phoenix, rumors had Stoudemire’s closing, but owner Bill Smith of the Smith Hospitality Group says the restaurant will simply close for dinner this summer, as is customary for many Valley restaurants. Smith, who owns several other cafes in the area, says the prognosis might not be so good for his Maria’s Mexican Grill at the nearby Collier Center.  “We’ve never been able to get the dinner business going,” Smith says.  In part he blames the Collier Center’s reluctance to allow him proper signage that would attract, for instance, riders on Metro Light Rail.  Now Maria’s is in limbo as Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon is working with the company to try and save it.  “The mayor is very proactive downtown,” Smith says. [Note: To read the full article, click here.]

Downtown Phoenix businesses lobby for new light rail stops

[Source: Jahna Berry, Arizona Republic, March 3, 2009] — When light-rail construction scared off scores of shoppers, many struggling downtown merchants considered the $1.4 billion line more of a curse than a blessing.  Light rail began running in December, and what a difference a few months has made.  Last week, several downtown business owners lobbied a transit agency to make sure that their shops would sit near a future light-rail route.  Metro appeared before an influential downtown business group to talk about plans for a light-rail span that would link West Phoenix, the state Capitol, and downtown in 2019.

Metro is weighing several possible routes on the west end of downtown Phoenix.  One option would put tracks on Jackson Street.  Another alternative would use Washington and Jefferson streets, Metro officials told the Downtown Phoenix Partnership.

  • Dale Jensen and David Wallach, two of the businessmen behind the proposed Jackson Street Entertainment District pushed for the Jackson Street option.  The city wants an entertainment district, and a Jackson Street light-rail route makes sense, Wallach said.
  • Bill Smith, who owns four downtown restaurants, including Stoudemire’s Downtown, argued for the Washington-Jefferson option.  All of his downtown restaurants sit near the Washington-Jefferson corridor.  “I have to disagree with my brother, Dale Jensen,” Smith said.

The banter was playful, but the stakes are high.  Metro recently announced that initial daily light-rail ridership was nearly 20 percent higher than expected.  About 30,000 boardings — one-way trips — are made each day.  If a business is located near the future light-rail line, those trains could bring thousands of potential customers.  [Note: To read the full article, click here.]

Downtown Phoenix businesses may bankroll trolley service

[Source: Jahna Berry, Arizona Republic] — Like Scottsdale, Phoenix hopes a trolley is the ticket to downtown fun.  Surveys went out this week to gauge Phoenix business owners’ support for a late-night trolley that would take visitors to parking garages and to downtown nightspots.  It would be similar to the 22-seat, four-wheeled trolley that drives visitors around downtown Scottsdale.  Under the proposal, the trolley would makes stops at several businesses and two city parking garages, which would offer discounted evening fees.  The Downtown Phoenix Partnership plans to discuss the questionnaire’s results in a few weeks.

Shop owners hope that the trolley, which could cost $40 a week per business, could make downtown Phoenix more enticing for people who worry about parking or walking long distances, some say.  “We think that it could be a great selling tool for downtown Phoenix,” said Bill Smith, who owns several downtown restaurants.  While people could theoretically walk from a Dodge Theater show to Majerle’s Sports Grill, “the Phoenix market isn’t accustomed to that,” Smith added.  The buildings are roughly seven blocks apart.  The trolley would be bankrolled by several businesses and many details, including the final cost and the route, depend on how many shops participate, Smith said.

The talks come as the City Council voted to cut bus service after 10 p.m. and before 5 a.m. to save money.  The city must slash an estimated $250 million from its budget.  The free city-operated Downtown Area Shuttle, also known as DASH, stops running at 8 p.m.  The proposed downtown trolley could run as late as 2 a.m., when many bars close.  “If we stick with DASH it’s limited what we can do,” said Terry Madeksza, operations director for the Downtown Phoenix Partnership.  “The ball is in our court.”  The goal is to have the trolley in place by Jan. 1, around the time that light-rail service begins, Madeksza said.  Metro officially begins service Dec. 27.

18-and-over bar events downtown draw ASU students

[Source: Jahna Berry, Arizona Republic] — For Nikki Hendry, it was a choice between squeezing in a couple of hours of studying and an 18-and-over club night in downtown Phoenix.  Midterms didn’t have a chance.  “Oh my God, we were so happy that there was something to do downtown,” Hendry, 18, said Thursday.  Hendry, a student at ASU, was at Bar Smith, dancing in a crowd of other classmates as Lil Wayne’s hit Lollipop thundered through the speakers.  It’s another sign that Arizona State University has not only made its mark on the Phoenix skyline — it’s begun to seep into downtown nightlife.  At least two nightspots, Bar Smith and Sky Lounge, have 18-and-older dance nights.

This fall, about 5,000 ASU students took classes in Phoenix and roughly 550 of them live in downtown dorms, according to the university.  While ASU is growing, nearby shops have struggled to attract students.  While Sky Lounge and Bar Smith managers are happy about the positive word of mouth, there have been lessons as well, they say.  Bar Smith, which operates an upscale restaurant during the day, unsuccessfully tried to lure students with meal discounts, owner Bill Smith said.  But the Thursday 18-and-over club night was an instant hit.  It attracts up to 80 students a night, he said.  [Note: To read the full article, click here.]

Downtown Phoenix businesses suggest light rail, parking changes

[Source: Jahna Berry, Arizona Republic, July 6, 2008] — If Phoenix wants its downtown nightlife to thrive, buses need to stay on the street long after sundown, several business owners say.  Bill Smith, who owns Bar Smith and other local restaurants, is a member of an alliance of bar, restaurant, hotel, and nightclub owners working on a couple of ideas to improve nighttime transit downtown.  For one, the group wants to talk to Valley Metro about light-rail hours.  Based on the latest schedule for the future transit line, light rail will operate from 4:40 a.m. to 11 p.m.  Valley Metro spokeswoman Hillary Foose said officials have not yet met with the business group.

Smith said another idea is to offer discount parking at a garage where people could hop onto a free shuttle to get to nighttime events.  Smith said parking costs are going up, too.  The situation has been complicated by construction for CityScape, a project that took over a parking lot once used by many customers of the Washington Street bars and eateries.

Nighttime transit became an issue last month after the City Council changed the Downtown Area Shuttle, the DASH.  Starting July 28, the bus will have two routes.  The “government loop” is similar to the existing route, running between downtown Phoenix and the state Capitol.  The “downtown loop” would go between schools, hotels, the biomedical campus, and some neighborhood destinations.  City Manager Frank Fairbanks said officials will have to figure out how routes could be changed.

Restaurateur believes downtown Phoenix is ready to boom

[Source: Jahna Berry, Arizona Republic] — Bill Smith is cooking up a small restaurant empire in downtown Phoenix.  Smith owns four downtown restaurants and is in talks to open two more eateries in the neighborhood.  One of will be in the Collier Center, where he has three restaurants, and the second may be in the planned Jackson Street entertainment district near Chase Field, he says.  Downtown Phoenix has long been a tricky neighborhood for restaurants, but that is starting to change, Smith says.

“If you try to buy a bunch of places near Wrigley Field, those places have been gone for 50 years,” said the 49-year-old president of AZ Banquets and Events, referring to the neighborhood near the storied Cubs stadium in Chicago.  His restaurants have a similar great location, Smith says.  The businesses are close to Chase Field and US Airways Center, venues that attract thousands of visitors.  [Note: To read the full article, click here.]