With Hundred North closing, can fine-dining thrive in Bellingham?

Why can’t high-end restaurants survive in Bellingham?

Hundred North announced it's closure at the end of August – here's a look at why high-end restaurants might be having trouble sticking around in Bellingham.
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Hundred North announced it's closure at the end of August – here's a look at why high-end restaurants might be having trouble sticking around in Bellingham.

Restaurants are one of the more challenging businesses to keep open, but in Bellingham it seems particularly tough for full-service, fine-dining eateries.

After announcing earlier this month that it was closing at the end of August, Hundred North near the Mount Baker Theatre had one of its busiest weeks in quite some time, general manager Alexine Langdon told The Bellingham Herald. One night last week they served 83 people; before the announcement restaurant was averaging around 35 diners.

Many of the customers were offering sincere condolences for the restaurant they enjoyed the past three years, something Langdon said she and the staff appreciated. For her, the interaction with customers was one of the reasons she’s been passionate about presenting the farm-to-table menu.

“I’ve never connected with Bellingham in such a way before,” said Langdon, who came to Bellingham seven years ago and began working at Hundred North soon after it opened in 2016. “It’s been really special working here.”

Hundred North will join a list of fine-dining establishments to close in Bellingham over the years. Examples on that list include the Prospect Street Cafe, Cliff House, Tivoli and Nimbus. Hundred North owner Timothy Shea noted on Facebook that he recently started a large farm in southern Oregon and found difficult to give both businesses the attention needed.

Why is it so difficult to keep these restaurants open in Bellingham?

Rising food and labor costs are probably one key factor. Sustainable Connections conducted a survey of local cafes, restaurants and food businesses in early 2018. The survey found 72% of those businesses that responded said profitability was down from the previous year; 78% said the cost of goods had risen.

Langdon said they received feedback from customers concerned about high menu prices, so they worked on lowering them earlier this year. That made profit margins even thinner, making it more challenging when sales were slower.

Other factors can be at play, said Guy Occhiogrosso, president and CEO of the Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce.

“You have to look at this as a case-by-case basis,” said Occhiogrosso, noting, for example, how much work it takes running a fine-dining restaurant and that life situations change for the owners.

Given how much housing prices and rent have risen in this area, Occhiogrosso wonders how much discretionary income people have these days.

The restaurant culture also may be changing. The brewery/food truck format is quite popular in Bellingham, and that may be where some of that discretionary income is going. Fine-dining also can have the reputation of being a place to go for special events, such as birthdays and anniversaries. That may not be enough to support as many fine-dining restaurants in Bellingham.

Taking in all types of restaurants and cafes in Whatcom County, so far in 2019 it’s been a fairly stable year. I’ve counted 12 restaurant/cafe closures so far this year, which is behind the pace of 25 such closures in 2018.

For Langdon and the staff at Hundred North, they are busy putting in the final days at Hundred North before figuring out the next steps in their respective careers. Despite having to look for another position soon, Langdon said she remains excited for where the Bellingham restaurant industry is going.

“It (Bellingham) has a good grasp on its local food culture,” Langdon said, adding that she thinks people staying connected with the restaurants they enjoy and supporting them, even if it is stopping in for a drink or small meal, can make a big difference.

“I feel like it was so close to being there,” Langdon said, referring to Hundred North remaining open.

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Dave Gallagher has covered the Whatcom County business community since 1998. Retail, real estate, jobs and port redevelopment are among the topics he covers.