Friday, April 10, 2009

The battle's turning, but so is the body count

Heard the good news? The worst is over for restaurants, or at least that’s what several research and news reports indicated this week. There’s just one problem: A lot of places won’t be there to enjoy it. They’re part of what’s starting to look like a tsunami of restaurant bankruptcies and forced closings.

Two subsidiaries of the Fatburger fast-casual chain filed for protection from creditors yesterday. A day earlier, Crain’s New York Business reported that Town, the highly rated New York outpost of chef Geoffrey Zakarian, was being pressured by two vendors to file for bankruptcy because the place hadn’t paid their bills.

The Pink Taco, an unqualified smash when it opened in Scottsdale to controversy over its name, has closed its legs for good. Also gone is another one-time hotspot in the area, the Fox Sports Grill.

The franchisor of the 37-unit Tumbleweed dinnerhouse chain threw in the napkin last week. Outback shuttered all nine of its steakhouses in Ontario. The lone Bob’s Big Boy in Glendale, Calif., the chain’s birthplace, is changing into something else.

The casualty list goes on and on, of places famous (Fior d’Italia, the San Francisco outlet that bills itself as America’s first Italian restaurant) or only locally known (the two Risotto’s MedRim Bistros in south Texas).

Yet the surging shakeout is hardly a contradiction of the positive outlook some are now airing for the business. It’s much more of a necessary correction, a painful symptom that has to be weathered while the trade’s overall health improves. Just as economists are predicting more job losses as the nation’s financial well-being starts to turn for the better, the industry is going to lose a lot of outlets, and not an insignificant number of brands. It’s part of the healing.

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