Does downtown Cincinnati have too many restaurants?

Posted at 5:51 PM, Sep 27, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-27 18:39:14-04

CINCINNATI -- Jean-Francois Flechet thinks Downtown's restaurant scene might feel saturated sometimes, but there's still room to grow.

Flechet, owner of Taste of Belgium, is bullish on expanding. He's carved a niche for himself, going from a waffle stand at Findlay Market to now three restaurants in Over-the-Rhine, Norwood and Corryville. A fourth will open soon in the new General Electric office building at The Banks.

Two blocks away, another restaurant closed for good this week: Crave was one of The Banks' original tenants, though far from the first to leave. Fellow Banks founder Johnny Rocket’s left in the spring of 2015, as did Mahogany’s at the Banks. Another planned project closed before it could open.

Flechet said he's encouraged by an influx of people back to the city's urban core.

"Things are changing," he said. "More and more people are moving Downtown and in Over-the-Rhine, and more and more offices. So, I think it may be a matter of timing."

According to the National Restaurant Association, about 60,000 new restaurants open each year, and 50,000 end up closing.

With about 2,000 GE employees moving in at The Banks, Flechet said he believes Taste of Belgium can be a success.

"We're not a specialty location place," he said. "We are a relatively low price point, so we see the same people day after day. There are some customers who come in here more than I do."

People have lots of restaurant choices, from fine dining to fast food, carryout to casual. Crave's closing points to the competitive nature of the business: Profit margins can be as low as 4 percent.

Chuck Matthews, at the University of Cincinnati Center for Entrepreneurship, said anyone opening a restaurant has to know the market and stand out from the crowd.

"Restaurants succeed because of three things: the food, the quality of the experience and the people -- and the people are the most important," he said.

A good staff is key, Matthews said. And Flechet said they're in short supply right now.

"It's definitely saturated from a staff standpoint because we are all trying to hire the same limited pool of people," he said.

Steakhouse owner Jeff Ruby said restaurants fail because owners can become complacent and not pay enough attention to detail. Matthews agreed that management issues top the list.

"You've got a lot of moving parts. You've got to get fresh food ordered. You've got to get all your equipment together. Everything has to be working, and it's a timed business," he said.

The Ohio State University's Hospitality Management program found 25 percent of restaurants close or change ownership in their first year; over three years, it's 60 percent, about the same as most other industries.

Flechet said consistency is key to staying in business.

"If you come today and the food tastes different than yesterday, that's not going to work," he said. "So, consistency is the first thing you need, and then affordability."