With 2018 winding down, the downtown Bellingham restaurant scene is churning.
Man Pies announced in late November in a Facebook post that it has closed after eight years of business. The eatery on Railroad Avenue joins six other downtown restaurants that have closed in recent months, including most recently Eat and Brotha Dudes.
Restaurant closures this time of year usually involve many factors, Guy Occhiogrosso, president and CEO of the Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview.
“What’s important to note is that everyone’s situation is different,” Occhiogrosso said.
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One reason restaurants and other businesses close toward the end of the year is because leases are up for renewal, sometimes at higher rates.
There are also legislative changes that will impact businesses and workers starting Jan. 1. Along with the new family leave premiums, which some employers and most workers will pay for, the state minimum wage will rise to $12 an hour in January, a 50-cent-an-hour increase.
With the family leave premium, most local restaurants (those who employ fewer than 50 people) don’t have to pay the employer portion, but they do need to collect the worker portion, according to the state’s paidleave.wa.gov website.
Occhiogrosso believes the changes happening in January could be a factor when a restaurant closes, but other things are a deciding factor, including fatigue.
“Running a restaurant is tough,” he said, noting that the number of hours an owner puts in can lead to exhaustion.
It should also be noted that plenty of new restaurants have been opening and many popular places are changing hands, said CJ Seitz of Western Washington University’s Small Business Development Center. Simmering Tava recently opened in downtown Bellingham, for example, while Skylark’s Hidden Cafe in Fairhaven was recently purchased by Brad Haggen.
The key for restaurant owners to handle the changes is planning, said Seitz in an email. That includes looking at the financial impacts and what can be done to offset the new costs. That could include raising prices, cutting staff hours or trimming menu items.
Restaurant owners are also finding ways to connect with customers to build loyalty, as well as bringing in new technology and business models to keep costs low, she said.
“An operator needs to have a manageable facility cost as well as tightly controlled wage and food costs in order to be successful,” Seitz said.