Moody Street in the heart of downtown Waltham has long been known for its eclectic collection of small, locally owned shops and dining spots. But the closing of three restaurants in the past month has highlighted the area’s heavy business turnover, and sparked concern among neighboring restaurants.
“It’s a scary thing,” said John Young, regional manager of Stadium Sports Bar and Grill, which opened on Moody Street in January. “I mean, we’re a small company too.”
The three latest casualties were the Boca Restaurant and Bar, Upper Crust Pizzeria, and Sadie’s Saloon and Eatery.
Boca’s owners sold the six-year-old restaurant to concentrate on their other business, the Waltham-based staffing company Panther Global Group, co-owner Roger Becker said.
“It was tough to be in two different businesses — the hours of the restaurant industry are so different from the staffing company,” Becker said, noting Panther Global is a $65 million business that employs 60 people. “There have been a lot of restaurants closing at the same time, but our reason is a lot different than some of the others.”
Becker said the restaurant has already been sold, but did not disclose any details.
The owners of Upper Crust and Sadie’s Saloon could not be reached for comment on their operations.
The closing of the Upper Crust site in Waltham took place against a backdrop of financial troubles for the chain. It had closed a restaurant on Commonwealth Avenue near Boston University in June, and locations in Salem and Beverly were shuttered in February. The company is still operating restaurants at 16 locations.
Upper Crust filed for bankruptcy protection after defaulting on its loan to TD Bank in late September.
The US Department of Labor has filed documents in the bankruptcy alleging that the chain violated minimum wage and overtime laws, and failed to pay 67 employees about $425,000 between April 2009 and January 2011. The company faces lawsuits over its labor practices, and in July a judge granted class-action status for a lawsuit by restaurant workers saying that they had not received their full wages.
Erin Barnicle, who has co-owned Tempo Bistro on Moody Street for nearly eight years, said watching her neighbors close in such rapid succession was disheartening.
“When our restaurant first opened, we felt like this street was on an upwards swing of gaining popularity and of restaurants opening,” she said. “But in the last couple of years, we started to notice more restaurants and stores are actually closing.”
Wayne Brasco, chairman of Waltham’s licensing commission, said the city’s restaurant turnover rate has always been higher than its neighboring towns, since Moody Street is lined with small, locally owned businesses that lack the deep pockets of corporate chains.
“Waltham has a higher turnover rate than Burlington or Lexington because we have a higher number of individual restaurants,” Brasco said. “You won’t see those big chains turn over, but the small places, they turn over. That’s what happens.”
According to Brasco, about a half dozen restaurants close each year in Waltham, and this year there have been “one or two more than usual.” The city’s licensing board reports there have been eight restaurant closings.
Brasco also said that the nation’s poor economic climate has exacerbated the situation. “The banks are not lending money the way they used to,” he said.
Young, the regional manager for the three-restaurant Stadium Sports Bar chain, agreed. He said that although the company’s owners plan to open a new location in Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace in time for the Super Bowl in February, and are also hoping to expand into Worcester and Lynn, the effects of the weak economy are hard to ignore.
“With the economy the way it is, it’s a very scary time to open a restaurant,” he said. “There are so many places going out of business.”
In the past two years, about a dozen restaurants in downtown Waltham have closed or changed ownership. No culinary genre was spared: Mexican restaurants, pizza joints, American pubs, and Asian spots were all affected, according to the city’s licensing department.
“The restaurant business is a funny business,” Brasco said. “If you don’t know what you’re doing, you won’t be in it long. And it will hurt.”
The restaurant closures have also come while a controversial liquor license proposal has created tension in the community. Some Waltham officials are seeking to bolster economic development by adding 15 alcohol sales licenses aimed toward large restaurants. The plan is to get the restaurants to open in places like the renovated Watch Factory along the Charles River, and the former Polaroid property off Route 128 that is undergoing redevelopment.
Brasco said the city is not aiming to take business away from Moody and Main streets, but rather wants to use the licenses to boost development in other parts of Waltham.
Local restaurants say the plan would give new businesses an unfair advantage, and lure customers away from downtown.
The proposal, which drew fire at a public hearing in May, is being considered by the City Council’s Committee of the Whole.
Barnicle said although she is confident that Tempo Bistro has found a following that secures its future, the threat of corporate chains establishing in Waltham makes her nervous.
She said adding larger restaurant chains will only make the turnover in downtown Waltham spike.
“It’s challenging for the independently owned restaurants,” Barnicle said. Larger chains “have the support to be able to stay open because they have millions of dollars backing them, whereas the little guy only has his life savings, which could run out pretty fast if they don’t have guests.”
However, officials like Brasco say that without adding the additional licenses — which would be owned by the city and rented out to restaurants with limitations — Waltham will not be able to keep pace with commercial development elsewhere in the area.
“We’re trying to get the best quality, the best fit for Waltham,” Brasco said, noting that the city could accommodate many daytime workers employed in nearby Burlington. “We’re looking to serve a swelling population during the day for lunch, and why should we lose that revenue? There is employment and tax dollars there.”
Even as some small eateries close and others open downtown, Mayor Jeannette McCarthy said, she does not think the turnover is too severe. The mayor said that although she feels sad seeing landmark restaurants like Sadie’s close their doors, she thinks the Moody Street area remains a desirable place to open a restaurant.
“We have a nice downtown that continues to attract people for their food,” McCarthy said. “Any type of thing you want to eat, you can eat in Waltham. It’s always reinventing itself.”
McCarthy also said some of the closed operations have already found takers for their liquor and restaurant licenses.
“As long as more restaurants come in, and the license is transferred, that’s my only concern,” McCarthy said, noting Boca’s licenses are being sold privately. “As long as it’s being reutilized, I think that’s healthy for the downtown.”
And even as some small restaurants suffer, others are booming, officials said. Owners of In A Pickle, a popular breakfast and lunch spot on Main Street, are eyeing a larger storefront on Moody Street to better accommodate their growing customer base, Brasco said.
“If you drive by in the morning, there’s always a line out the door,” Brasco said, laughing. “You’d think they’re giving away a free tank of gas with every meal.”Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.