Just One More Sinking Ship?

By: Eric Scott

This may be my last entry for this column. My little restaurant is sinking like a schooner that scraped too many rocks and corals navigating a shallow harbor in rough seas on a dark night, holding out for sunlight and a rising tide. Some on the shore might have seen it coming. Others could be shocked at our demise. Few know we’ve been piloting a damaged vessel for years, bailing water almost round the clock to stay afloat.

Three major winds steered us here: inconsistent volume, government greed, and operating inefficiency. Those who come on occasions we’re crowded aren’t aware of how often we have few or no customers. To balance it out we invest in promotions that eat up profits. Independent restaurant margins are 3-4 percent on average. Sales of $50,000 yields less than $1500 to take home and pay personal taxes on after sales taxes, occupancy taxes, health permits, fire and grease handling permits, and other mandatory fees and assessments. Owners typically make less than key employees, unless they are the key employee. And they bear all the risk. A major repair or setback can wipe you out.

Any promotion that discounts price is only a temporary fix intended to secure long-term volume by exposure. Advertising often costs more than it brings in. But volume is the key to success of any business. Sales of $100,000 leaves an owner $4000 to work with since fixed overhead is already covered. Not many small independent restaurants sell 400 plates of a $10 fare every day all year. A new computer system and a commercial dough mixer take up a full year’s profits. Hope the A/C lasts.

The nine-shop retail strip center we occupied was erected in 2005. I know of sixteen businesses that went belly-up, three that changed hands, and two that moved. Two more have told me they’ll get out when their lease term ends. Two of the four landlords who have invested in this center to generate income from tenants experienced foreclosure or filed for bankruptcy over the same period.

It’s a sad testament to the unfortunate state of entrepreneurialism in America. It’s a scathing indictment on government agencies at the local, state, and federal level whose insatiable appetite for tax and permit revenue sustains bulging bureaucracies that enforce untenable regulations arbitrarily and inefficiently. It’s a poor reflection on big institutions that hide huge profits so they can pay exorbitant bonuses to senior managers while underlings receive a livable wage for extracting whatever they can from customers. I’ve lived on all sides of the equation on my unusual varied career path. It’s a pleasant cruise for the captains. It’s awful for the rowers.

Worst of all, this is another fearful reminder to citizens across the land that our economy is battered after years of attack on the foundations of capitalism by those who favor big government and big business. No job in the private sector is safe. We live in an age of smoke and mirrors where things are not as they appear. Lady Liberty surely grieves over the carnage in her harbor.

I had a dream when my wife allowed me to sink our retirement funds into this business nine years ago. I committed to provide neighboring families a wholesome delicious product with pleasant service in a comfortable atmosphere at a fair price. I was going to employ capable people, provide a good working environment, and give my employees a source of both income and pride. I wanted to mentor young people entering the work force. And, hopefully, do that while making at least as much return on my investment as our meager retirement account provided.

My folks have been loyal and done a good job. My Kitchen Manager, Jordan Gonzales, Front of the House Manager, Jimmy Stegall, and main dishwasher, Valentin Marquez, have been with me since we started cleaning floors and stocking shelves before we opened. My General Manager, Jake Majeski, started as a server within months of our opening and worked his way up. Several other employees have stayed with me for five years or more. Dozens deserve individual mention and praise.

All this time, I’ve looked forward to rewarding them with bonuses I haven’t been able to offer since our second year, when my initial investment funds ran out. I have never taken a regular paycheck, and have taken precious little out of the business to repay myself for purchases, much less my considerable time and labor. It’s been a labor of love and I’ve enjoyed it. My greater burden is not being able to remunerate these precious souls fairly for the support they have exhibited through difficult times. I prayerfully leave that to God.

I would miss chatting tableside with my customers, hundreds of whom have become my friends. I’d miss watching kids whose first restaurant excursion was in my restaurant, grow up and tell me how they’re doing in school, and getting caught up with young adults I fed or even hired when they come home from college, or whatever distant state they land a job in. I’d miss helping people get together and make great memories at bridal showers, civic club luncheons, family holidays, and special occasions.

The fact is, this never was my business. As a Christian I understand, recognize, and appreciate that everything I have is God’s; from whatever I come to possess, to my very life. It’s His to use or discard. It’s His to take from one person and assign to another, for a season or a lifetime. If God relieves me of my charge at Christopher’s Italian Restaurant, He will monitor, protect, and redirect those I care for and worry about. And He will redirect my path. Who knows, my next ship may already be in the harbor waiting for me. I have no idea what kind of vessel, where it might be bound, or when it could depart. I don’t know if I would sign on as a captain or a rower.

If so it must be, I ask your prayers the Lord will allow me to go down with honor, and that He will provide a worthy vessel and strong headwinds for those who must leave my ship. It’s been a good ride on calm and stormy seas, in high tides and low. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of The Lord. I’d sure miss the great pizza and the delicious lasagna… and the people. Thanks for your patronage and support… friends.