To Michael Sohocki, owner of Reastaurant Gwendolyn:
When I first read your post on the Rivard Report talking about how you were forced to make the difficult business decision to close lunch service at your restaurant, my initial reaction was to run downtown and give you hug and a fist bump for speaking your mind and telling everyone “how it is.”
I loved how honest and raw your words were. Frankly, I’ve thought a lot about your post in the past 24 hours –probably too much – and the more I chew on it, the more I find issues with a few of your points.
Before I get to those, first let me say three things: 1) I applaud your use of a forum such as this to express your opinion – a win for free speech, 2) I’m ecstatic that someone with some money/investment in the game spoke up and shared their thoughts “from the inside” of downtown and 3) as I’m not in your position, I have no idea what it really feels like to be faced with a scenario such as yours. It sounds like a rough world down there.
So, as a person who likes looking at things from a different angle at times, I’ve read your post several times – like I said, I probably spent too much time on this. I’m a lover of downtown San Antonio and a believer in the near-unlimited potential it possesses but I don’t currently work downtown and cannot afford to live down there either.
As a mid-30’s man with a wife and child, I can’t swing the kind of cash such a luxury requires. But I would be down there in a second if the economics were right. I do however live five minutes and four stop signs away from downtown San Antonio in the Deco District off I-10.
[Read More: Where I Live: Monticello Park/Deco District]
As an avid runner and lover of all things urban, I’m downtown in some shape, way or form at least three times a week. My family currently lives in two times the square footage for about half the cost of what a going rate two-bedroom condo or apartment downtown is currently priced at.
I know many people continue to comment that if there was an affordable housing option downtown they would move down tomorrow. Heck, I’ve been one of those people. I’m no economist by any stretch of the imagination, but from the best of my knowledge, there doesn’t seem to be an abundance of vacancies at the current desired downtown housing options. There seems to be an abundance of people willing to pay an exceptional amount of money for minimal square footage. So, good for them, and good for the developers who are raking in the cash on these investments.
That being said, affordable housing options do exist downtown, such as The Soap Works Apartments (one-bedroom apartments starting at $370 per month) and the Robert E. Lee Apartments (one-bedroom apartments around $600 per month). But the main issue is that people want 1800 Broadway amenities at suburb prices. Not going to happen.
But I digress.
To your main point, which is that not enough San Antonio residents frequent your establishment during lunch to make it cost effective to remain open during those hours. I do know that Bill Miller’s has a location directly across from your restaurant on East Pecan Street. From what I understand, they do very well during lunch. Could at least some of this be related to the fact that people are creatures of habit and they run to that which is familiar? It’s why Starbucks does so well, right? You can get the same cup of coffee in Seattle as you can San Antonio or Sacramento.
On a smaller scale, Bill Miller’s falls in the same model when it comes to lunch in downtown San Antonio. It may not be the best, but at least you know what you’re getting. That doesn’t mean that small businesses should just roll over and give up – they just face additional adversity against that which is familiar. I know you’re not in the fast-food barbecue business – I’m not trying to directly compare you to Bill Miller’s – but if I work downtown I’m more than likely going to side with what I know is inexpensive chicken and fries over much of anything else that might cost more. Again, that’s just me. Though it was possible to get a $10 lunch at Gwendolyn, many passersby wouldn’t know it.
On to the parking issue.
This somehow seems to be a hot item with nearly everyone I talk to who lives in suburban San Antonio and doesn’t venture downtown except for their annual viewing of the Christmas lights on the River Walk in December.
Perhaps this is a byproduct of their suburban shopping mall culture and lover of big box parking lots. The reality is that there’s a five-story city garage directly across the street, and several surface lots within a two block radius. Often times when I head downtown I park in this exact area due to the abundance of parking and ease of getting around versus the congestion that can sometimes occur deep in the heart of the downtown district. I don’t know how to convince locals that parking really isn’t as much of an issue as they think.
I know perception is reality for most, so if they perceive that parking is a disaster in the area, they won’t go. Unfortunately, too few people know this really isn’t the case.
You also mentioned the amount of tickets you’ve received from parking directly in front of your restaurant. From what I recall, there is no legal parking zone directly in front of your establishment, so yes, why would you not expect a fine for parking illegally? It would be no different than me parking on San Pedro to run inside a Whataburger and grab some food, right? From what I recall, there’s a VIA bus stop within a few feet of your front door. I imagine they can’t access their stop when someone is parked in their lane. Also, there’s a 30 minute loading zone directly across from your restaurant, is that not an option?
There are several other items you hinted at that I tend to agree with which could be dissected at length as well (location, adjacent vacant properties, residential vs. commercial development, readdressing of existing city ordinances, etc.), but that’s a story for another time.
Editor’s Note: Stay tuned to the Rivard Report for Director Robert Rivard’s column on the matter Sunday.
Again, I’m in no way trying to be a bully, as you’ve raised some very valid points. I enjoyed your post and can only imagine how frustrated you must be to see profits disappearing with empty seats.
It takes a boldness that I’m not sure I possess to be a small business owner, so when obstacles stand in your way, I imagine you would to do all you can to push through those barriers and see the joy of the other side. Please keep fighting for downtown San Antonio, I believe it’ll be worth it. Hopefully sooner rather than later.
– Jeff Reininger
*Featured/top photo: Bill Miller’s, a tow-away zone and commercial loading zone across the street from Restaurant Gwendolyn. Photo by Iris Dimmick.