Andrew Hutto is tired, worn down by the stress, the hours, the headaches and hassles of the restaurant business, the only work he’s known for the past three decades.
His reasons: He’s tired of chasing trends, tired of battling in a restaurant marketplace with more seats than willing customers to occupy them, tired of watching dollars—be they civic or private —go to hot areas of town, such as NuLu, rather than into communities where Old Guard restaurateurs would like to see some investment, tired of seeing local government officials court out-of-town companies while not returning his calls.
“I drive Lexington Road to work every day, and it really needs repaving,” Hutto began. “But instead, millions of dollars are being spent on NuLu’s sidewalks. Why? … When the sidewalk around my own property needs fixing, I’m told I’m responsible for it.”
Hutto insisted his complaints and frustrations aren’t born of jealousy that newer restaurants are drawing patrons away from his; he knows that’s part of the game. Competition here has grown exponentially since he opened his doors in 1989.
Broader circumstances, most notably the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America, have beaten down him and his fellow restaurateurs in ways they never anticipated, he said.
“When the planes hit those two towers, I said we were all really screwed, because I knew no one really had a rainy day fund that would help us” weather what was coming.
Hutto isn’t the first restaurateur to say business has never been the same since that day. But he’s one of a growing number speaking candidly of late, saying maybe it’s time to sell, to get out, to let another have a run at it, to quit resisting the reality of a restaurant’s life cycle.
“I’m like a lot of others who’ve been trying to stick it out and get through ever since (9/11), and probably due to pride,” Hutto said. “But sooner or later you have to say, ‘The stress of this business is killing me,’ suck up that wounded pride and move on. The truth is I can’t continue to reinvest money I don’t have into a business whose sales are half what they were pre-9/11.”
Sales slashed by frightened consumers who, seven years after that horrific day, got even stingier when they accepted the truth that dining out on home equity loans is moronic; and sales parsed even further by a continual influx of new and really good restaurants that continue to subdivide what is clearly a limited pie.
Louisville’s restaurant business wasn’t so complicated when Hutto got his start in the 1980s managing lunches at Lilly’s and waiting tables at night at Café Metro and Uptown Café. With limited options, most restaurants were regularly busy, and margins were monstrously wider.
Bristol Bar & Grille co-founder Doug Gossman told me two years ago that making 20 cents on every dollar sold was the standard in the 1980s, but that today it’s a nickel if an operator is lucky.
In those days, Hutto said, no one was running two-for-one specials, half-priced wine nights, bourbon flights and tapas nights. You developed a menu, printed and put it on the table. And while he doesn’t lament having to do some of those promotional efforts in the meantime, he said the net effect of such extra work is minimal.
“It’s good for about six weeks, and then it dies back,” he said, referring to a bourbon flight promotion. Not long ago customers convinced him to open on Sundays, and the same thing happened. “It went well for a while and then it was dead. It wasn’t worth opening anymore on Sundays.”
Hutto’s gimlet-eyed-view of customers is also likely right: most don’t care for adventurous dining. They want to get full for a value price. “There just are a lot of people interested in vanilla, and that’s what chains deliver. And you can’t kill vanilla. It’ll always be there.”
Like a lot of restaurateurs, he’s got a love-hate relationship with Churchill Downs. The Kentucky Corporate Sponsored NBC Manufactured Derby brings thousands of potential customers to town, but Churchill and NBC have — knowingly or not — removed a full seating from most Louisville restaurants on Derby Eve and Derby night by pushing back those races’ start times.
Downs After Dark—even Hutto agrees it’s a cool idea—dings business badly every Friday it’s run.
“I like Churchill; I like to go to the track,” he began, “but with them changing race times with the hot weather this week, that’s going to hurt my business the next three nights.”
And yet, despite that petulant HotBytes post and his promise to sell the business — an announcement that surprised his employees — Hutto said he’s cooled off a bit and is rethinking that decision.
Sometime next month he plans to start serving breakfast (one of two growth dayparts in the entire restaurant industry; the other is late-night, from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m.). Every Monday through Saturday, he plans to open early and see if he can wedge into customers’ wallets in a way his competitors haven’t.
“Maybe that’ll give us a bump and get things going again,” Hutto said. “I need to do something that will get it reinvigorated and get us back into the fronts of peoples’ minds. … With all the new restaurants out there and when you look at where we’re located, it’s easy to forget about us.”