Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Home Eat & Drink Size Matters in the Restaurant Biz: Why Fresco and Forage are Closing.

Size Matters in the Restaurant Biz: Why Fresco and Forage are Closing.

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The dining news was harsh: Two of Salt Lake City’s restaurant stars announced their imminent closure this week.

In different scenarios, the reason for both closures was the same. It’s not because their names both start with “F.”

It’s a matter of size.

Both Forage and Fresco are very small and small restaurants have to make money by doing a high-volume business or serving higher-priced, chef-driven food. The balance is precarious, the margins are slim and the amount of money to be made is limited.

Fresco is and has been the most charming restaurant in the city because of its eccentric location behind a bookstore. But it didn’t get by on its good looks alone. Surprisingly, the restaurant has had a roster of stellar chefs who have made the name of other restaurants—Billy Sotelo, Logen Crews, etc.—starting of course, with chef-owner Mikel Trapp, who bought Fresco from David Harries.

“I thought I wanted to have my own little restaurant where I would be chef and have my hands in everything,” said Trapp in a recent phone conversation. “Ha! That lasted about seven months.”

Trapp, who also started both Cafe Trios and Luna Blanca Taqueria, is now partners with Joel LaSalle in Main Course Management which owns the spectacularly successful Current and the soon-to-open Stanza, considered a bankable proposition.

Letting go of Fresco wasn’t a sudden decision: Trapp has had the restaurant up for sale for the past six months or so, even though, he says, the restaurant is still successful and has a lot of regular patrons.

But “Current makes more money than all my other restaurants combined,” said Trapp, and Stanza is likely to be a repeat performance.

Main Course Management is growing a chef-ownership model for its future restaurants; seeking chefs who want to partner with them in chef’s food-driven places. Fresco’s size may be too small for this model to work. If by “work” you mean make money that’s worth the time.

A small restaurant requires as much oversight as a large one.

We’ll see. Trapp says a sale of Fresco is imminent. What the new owner will decide to do with Salt Lake’s most charming restaurant space remains to be seen. It may even be a new version of Fresco.

A few blocks away, Forage, the best restaurant in Salt Lake City, is also closing.

It too, is still successful, but its seven year lease is almost up and chef-owner Bowman Brown is feeling cramped.

At Forage, he’s still in a moribund partnership with Viet Pham who left the kitchen years ago to pursue culinary stardom. And the kitchen at Forage is almost unbelievably tiny for the kind of complicated, highbrow food Brown has become famous for.

In spite of its size, award-winning Forage is one of the most famous restaurants in Utah—its extraordinary brand of madly inventive, neo-molecular cuisine has been recognized by national magazines as well as by the James Beard Foundation.

But Brown can’t wait to stretch a little on his own. “I’ll be doing food much like I do here, only in a larger space. Mainly, a larger kitchen.” He has a vision of a small lounge area, besides the dining room, where he can offer some a la carte options and a shorter tasting menu on week nights.

So Fresco and Forage are closing. But Salt Lake diners don’t really have to say good-bye. Just au revoir.

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