Local Restaurant Closing May Be A Warning Sign

The closing earlier this week of Jimmy’s Restaurant after a short 11 weeks in business should be a warning sign about the state of the local economy.

The business made mistakes and should have acted upon complaints from customers earlier than it did. In hindsight, more money up front was needed to be able to carry the business through a year in order to gain a loyal local following. Let’s be fair, too, by saying that while some people had complaints, there were also people who enjoyed going in to Jimmy’s.

Business was brisk at Jimmy’s until shortly after Labor Day — or roughly the time when tourists leave the area. When the tourists went home, there wasn’t enough traffic coming in to justify keeping the restaurant open. Losing any of that remaining traffic to complaints about the menu or customer service was the death knell for the restaurant. Eleven weeks should have been plenty of time for the restaurant to make changes and survive. Many restaurants in similar situations are afforded the time to make a course correction because there is still enough business walking in for the restaurants to work out the kinks.

Jimmy’s, however, didn’t exist in a vacuum. Look at the restaurants that have gone out of business in the past several months. Some — like Alfie’s, Friendly’s, Ruby Tuesday’s and even Sam’s Club– were in the marketplace long enough to develop loyal followings. While each may have had their own individual issues, one has to wonder if the greater Jamestown restaurant market has become saturated to the point where area residents alone can’t sustain them all. There are only so many local dollars to go around and more than enough restaurants to take them.

The overriding lesson — other than making sure to take every customer issue to heart and act quickly on them — is that relying on a tourism- and service-based economy creates a boom and bust cycle for small businesses like restaurants. It takes deep pockets to sustain a business on fewer customers in the winter months until the tourists with deeper pockets return in the spring. It appears to us that there is still a void from the old Downtown Jamestown Development Corporation that has yet to be filled in the local economy of an organization that took it upon itself during the slow periods of the year to do what it could to encourage traffic in downtown businesses. Cities with booming economies don’t need such efforts to encourage visitors. Their economies generate the type of jobs that generate the type of disposable income for people to eat out often and visit the amenities their areas have to offer.

The greater Jamestown area, with its higher poverty rate and wages that are on average lower than wages across the rest of the state, isn’t generating such amounts of disposable income. It’s why the National Comedy Center is likely more busy in the summer than it is during the fall and winter. It’s why some businesses close in the winter and reopen in the spring. And it’s why those elected to office at the town, village, city and county levels need to take a hard look at what they’re doing to help businesses open. It’s not enough to merely open the checkbook of local development corporations to help a new business set up shop. Some action, either municipal or through partnership with existing non-profit organizations, needs to step up and help small businesses generate new customers. It may mean helping businesses advertise and market themselves through the newspaper or radio, come up with special night out packages or contests or even the old DJDC program that focused on a downtown business and gave everyone participating a discount on their order.

The greater Jamestown area never fully recovered from the last economic downturn. Now, it appears another downturn may be on the horizon. Disposable income will likely be a little harder to come by in our area. Local businesses — and the organizations that currently exist to help them or new organizations that may emerge — need to step up their game before more of our local economy fades away into oblivion.