Curses!

Mike Cook

Restaurant gossipers whisper of cursed locations more than children gather around campfires. It is the ultimate foodie story, a haunted location crushing the hopes of every restaurant that dares open there. I've heard it plenty in Baltimore, but what really makes a location cursed, and do we really have any here?

First, let's clear up the argument of how often restaurants fail. They don't fail 90% of the time, as people like to say, nor do 95% of them close within the first three years. According to an Ohio University study, restaurants in Columbus, Ohio, had a roughly 60% failure rate over the three year period studied. The study also found that a quarter of restaurants did fail in their first year, but after that the rate decreased.

The study asked individual owners about why their businesses failed, and found that in most cases, it was the intense time commitment. “The successful owners were either very good at balancing their family and work lives or single or divorced."

So, first step towards avoiding a restaurant curse: have no life.

How often people misquote failure rates reveals what restaurant curses are really all about: an exciting story. We writers love to create stories out of events. Magical hexes don't exist, but from the way people throw the term "cursed" around in online reviews you can tell they believe.

Some restaurant locations are just tough. Witness the 21 North Eutaw Street location, once Maggie Moore’s, then Lucy's and now Alewife. This is a difficult location, with little night traffic besides sporadic crowds brought in by the Hippodrome. Tough isn't the same as cursed, though, and Alewife is doing a good job so far of proving that a good restaurant can win in such a spot.

Then again, there's 845 South Montford Ave. This building, on the corner of Boston street near the Can Company, has rolled over so often it's hard even keeping up with who is there now. It was once Red Fish, then Meridian 54, then Tangiers, and then Hollywood Burger Bistro, all within four years.

It may be the restaurant, not the locale. I have no personal knowledge of Hollywood, but reviews were terrible. They'd hardly opened before they went under. If the reviews were accurate, Hollywood's failure had nothing to do with a curse, but everything to do with management.

And that is what restaurant experts will tell you. It's all about management. A curse, even if it's just a story, can change the management you get. If a restaurant does fail, a smart potential restaurateur might look very carefully at the location before moving in, and might decide to pass. Since savvy restaurateurs pass them by, locations with recent failures may attract less well organized, funded, or knowledgeable second tenants, thus increasing the potential of failure.

This is the conclusion the Washington Post and VancouverSun came to. These locations are harder to lease, and brokers can't be as picky.

Curses aren't all bad, though. In my personal experience, I do not believe the public shies away from a new restaurant because a previous one in the same location failed. In fact, I would argue that the story, because it is more interesting, serves to get more people in the door initially. A New York restaurant even took advantage, inviting clergy to bless the location at their grand opening. People showed up, and after that, it was up to the food and the service. If they are no good, then the location hardly matters anyway.


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