THE CHEF DESCENDED on the trash can like an owl who’d spotted a field mouse. Reaching in up to his shoulder, he snared a small white creamer cup — unopened — and turned to look for the dishwasher who had scraped it off a plate and into the bin. This was in Pittsburgh, in 1999, at a small Italian restaurant that had been a Greek restaurant before and something else before that. I was the dishwasher.
“There are two main reasons restaurants fail,” the chef said. The first one was insufficient startup capital. I suspected this was not why he was berating the dishwasher. “The second,” he said, holding the creamer cup at eye level for inspection, “is waste.”
In the famously fickle restaurant industry, the threat of failure looms over all but the most established eateries. Studies vary, but a report published by a Cornell University journal found that about 60 percent of restaurants fail in their first three years. And it’s not as if the second year you’re just counting giant piles of money on the bar, either. Even well-funded fine dining restaurants, whose openings are eagerly anticipated on food blogs and whose chefs have become marginal celebrities, can run into trouble. “Sure, everybody does good in the first year, and the second year is cool,” says Matthew Gaudet, whose beloved Cambridge restaurant West Bridge closed at the end of last year. “But let’s talk about the third year, and how’s your relationship with your landlord?”
Against that terrifying backdrop, restaurateurs and chefs develop theories and worry them like rosary beads. Restaurants come in two categories — those that have failed and those that haven’t failed yet. Figuring out how to stay in the latter category is about a lot more than braising beef ribs and passing health inspections.
Restaurants close for all kinds of reasons, of course. Chefs get burned out and buildings burn down. One of the rats living in the kitchen finds its way into the fryer and ends up in the calamari. I worked for a while at a Portland, Oregon, restaurant where the French Canadian chef/owner lived under the constant threat of deportation. But those are the outliers, and people whose livelihoods come from feeding the masses must stay vigilant for the things that doom restaurants every day.
“I know a guy,” says Nick Varano, whose various Strega restaurants keep multiplying around Greater Boston, “a superstar. He thought he was going to change the world. But he put no salt on the table. No salt and pepper for a [expletive] steak! What are you talking about? Maybe I like salt. But he wouldn’t give it to you.” He didn’t last long, says Varano.
TO VARANO — who wouldn’t name the guilty chef — the story illustrates his pet theory of why so many restaurants fail: shoddy hospitality.
“You could be the greatest chef,” says Varano. “You could put chamomile on a piece of sea bass and change the world. But unless you have staff . . . all you have is a piece of fish with a tea bag on it.” In his telling, the long-running success of Strega and the empire it spawned is in large part a result of obsessive devotion to customer service. To Varano, the most offensive four-letter word in the restaurant business isn’t the one he used to describe the unsalted steak. “It’s ‘no,’ “ Varano says. “Add two o’s on the end.”
Varano obsesses over service, training everyone who deals with customers in the ways of improv comedy: Say yes to everything. “If they want mustard on their chicken parm,” he says, “make it for them” — a notion that never quite made its way to the now-closed kitchen of a chef I once worked for who threw a fit every time anyone asked for their lamb chops cooked past medium. The result, Varano believes, is repeat business — the key to long-term success.
To be sure, Varano’s restaurants do more than kiss up to customers. Strega’s aesthetic is aggressively cosmopolitan, even when the building is tucked into a suburban office complex — the kind of strangely ostentatious obsession with being classy that pre-politics Donald Trump always turned up to 12. That may not be for everybody, but it is for enough. Virtually every night at Strega, large groups are having a great time celebrating something, confident that they’ve come to the right kind of place.
“You’re going to go to a place that’s just going to care a little bit more,” he says. Anybody can get customers in the door once. But if the location is bad, it might be one and done.
MICHAEL KRUPP OPENED PERSEPHONE — the restaurant inside the high-concept Achilles Project boutique/eatery — in what now seems like the perfect spot: Fort Point, surrounded by luxury condos, artists’ lofts, upscale restaurants, and one of the country’s best breweries. The innovative concept, with DJs and video games under the same roof as high-end fashion and food, got tons of buzz. “We picked a great space. We designed it well. We knew that place was going to be hot,” says Krupp, who opened Persephone with chef Michael Leviton.
And while Fort Point is hot now, Persephone has been closed since 2009. “We got murdered,” Krupp says. Fort Point had hung onto the Next Hot Neighborhood tag for years without actually turning hot — and then the recession hit.
“We were, on so many levels, right,” says Krupp, who later found success with Kendall Square’s Area Four. “Two years earlier or two years later, we would have been golden.” Instead, they were selling expensive, high-end fashion and food in a little-known, sparsely populated neighborhood in the middle of a recession. The $100 sandwich and even more expensive jeans might sell now in Fort Point. Then? No chance.
Persephone had three of what Krupp says are the four pillars of success: Food, service, and design? Check. Location? Not so much.
But Krupp says he learned from the failure and was better able to withstand initial hiccups at Area Four — like a liquor license delay that led to the restaurant serving only lunch for its first few weeks. Now Area Four is about as recession-proof as a restaurant can be, serving deeply satisfying, reasonably affordable food to a steady stream of repeat customers. The food is approachable. (Area Four’s slogan: “This is real food. From the oven.”) The concept is innovative — there’s an attached cafe and a mobile oven for private parties — without being inscrutable. It’s in a place that’s already full of people. “We have guests who come in multiple times a day,” Krupp says. “That’s something that’s economy-proof.”
BUT A STRONG ECONOMY can bring its own challenges: landlord problems.
By any reasonable standard, the Grafton Group of restaurants in Cambridge has been a runaway success. Russell House Tavern, which does brisk business in Harvard Square, opened in 2010. Park opened in 2012, and Temple Bar has been chugging along since 1998. Grafton Street Pub & Grill, opened in 1996, is also going strong. But that wasn’t always so.
Grafton Street Pub & Grill was forced out of its original location, up the street from where it now sits, and was closed for about a year in 2001 and 2002. “We were young, and we had some assurances from the landlord that the deal would be renewed,” Grafton owner Patrick Lee says. When it wasn’t, he was suddenly casting around for a new place to set up shop. “The ordeal of having to move the restaurant set us back 10 years. We were lucky to absorb it.”
When it comes to restaurants and their landlords, Lee says, “both sides need to have their eyes wide open in terms of what the challenges are.” A landlord who sees a restaurant doing reasonably well and doubles the rent may misunderstand the profit margins of businesses that are notorious for scraping by.
If anything, the problem in Boston and Cambridge — where a square foot of prime commercial real estate is worth as much a month as several pounds of prime beef — is even worse today than it was then, Lee says. And while some landlords see value in a popular, high-traffic restaurant on the ground floor of a building, others are simply looking to tease out every possible dollar in rent — something a restaurant can’t usually offer compared with, say, a bank branch.
“Location is important,” Lee says — and Grafton Group’s four Cambridge restaurants are all in highly visible and walkable spots, covering various bases: a top-notch local bar at Grafton Street, for example, elevated pub food in a casual atmosphere at Temple, and the Russell House, for when those parents visit campus. But there are lots of locations where such solid concepts and strong execution could work. That’s why, Lee says, “the business deal is as important, if not more.”
Carla and Christine Pallotta learned a similar lesson when the rent at their North End eatery Nebo, which opened in 2005, suddenly tripled. They could have made it work, they say, but instead they packed up and moved to Atlantic Avenue in 2013. Finding a new home at just the right time was fortuitous. A less successful restaurant might have been in trouble.
“We had a great restaurant with a nice reputation,” Carla says. “We knew what we had for a market. We knew our concept. We knew our mission. . . . We didn’t know our landlord.”
MATTHEW GAUDET HAD HIS SHARE of landlord problems at West Bridge. But the doomed Cambridge restaurant known for its playful egg in a jar also ran into new problem that could haunt Boston’s expanding food scene: a talent shortage.
Gaudet’s original menu at West Bridge won accolades from critics and customers alike. It was, by mutual acclaim, one of the best restaurants in Greater Boston, and Gaudet won a Food & Wine Best New Chef award. But that wondrous menu required several solid technicians in the kitchen, and West Bridge’s sous chefs and line cooks were poached faster than the duck eggs filling all those jars. One by one, elements of dishes were pared back so the kitchen could pull them off. “We stopped doing tasting menus,” Gaudet recalls. “Then we stopped doing amuses. Gradually it becomes a different place.”
Gaudet says he cooked in restaurant kitchens for 15 years before he opened his own. Now, people with a year or two of experience are taking the reins, their kitchens picked over in search of fresh meat for the next hot restaurant. “I think the food gets dumbed down,” Gaudet says. “There’s a lack of checks and balances. You have to simplify your menu and execute it with overworked and smaller staffs.”
Gaudet, whose next project is a planned counter-service eatery specializing in ribs and pizzas in Manchester-by-the-Sea, says the pace of new restaurant openings in and around Boston is extreme, and that’s hurting both the front and the back of the house at a lot of places, new and old. “It’s hard to maintain a business model of a great restaurant,” he says.
In the end, what happened at the much-mourned West Bridge was the sum of all restaurant fears: Rent and staff costs and turnover all spiraled until, he says, “we had to make a choice: Does this seem viable as a livelihood?” At its root, it’s what happens to every great restaurant that closes before its owner would prefer. Eventually, all the problems you can’t taste make their way onto the plate.
Nestor Ramos is a Globe staff writer. Send comments to magazine @globe.com.
This story has been updated to correct the number of Grafton Group restaurants in Cambridge and to clarify a detail of Area Four’s mobile catering operation.