Local restaurants deal with downturn in diners

A slowdown in patronage to Ashland restaurants is forcing owners to cut hours and workers. In several cases, owners are closing their doors for good.

Three Ashland restaurants in the downtown area — Ashland Bistro Café, Il Giardino Cucina Italiana and Harper's Restaurant — faced the prospect of shutting down or relocating in the last month. Many others, like Chateaulin, in the heart of the plaza, reported below average earnings for the fall and early winter season, compared with previous years.

"Business has definitely been a bit slow," said Jason Doss, co-owner of Chateaulin. "The holiday season was not as busy as it usually is. It makes things difficult, but we're still going to try to operate."

Italian restaurant Il Giardino relocated to Medford in November. The eatery had been a staple on Granite Street near the plaza for more than a decade.

On Dec. 7, Paul Maurer and Kathie Chadbourne closed the door on Harper's, a restaurant they had opened just 15 months ago. The couple was preparing to move to Salt Lake City, when an act of good will by their landlord allowed the couple to remain in business.

Ashland Bistro Café — formerly the Ashland Bakery Café — shut down in late November. Marlane Webb and her husband bought the Ashland Bakery Café in 1998. They sold it in 2007, only to buy it back February of this year.

The second honeymoon was short.

"In seven months, we lost almost $30,000," said Webb. "The cost of just opening the door, and employee salaries, it was too much."

Webb, who also works at the Ashland Springs Hotel, said operations and maintenance costs wiped out what profit they could make on the café, forcing them to take out costly mortgages. In the ten years she and her husband managed the restaurant, that mortgage more than doubled, from $140,000 in 1998, to $290,000 when they finally decided to close.

"We gave our heart and soul for that restaurant," Webb said. "My husband ran it seven days a week. It's so hard to run a business in this town."

The winter slowdown is a reality restaurant owners must deal with, says City of Ashland Finance Director Lee Tuneberg. While the prospect of paying rent on a building that goes unused for several months may deter some owners from opening shop in Ashland, the ones that succeed do so in the same business cycle as all the others.

"There's no doubt about it, November through February of course is our off season," Tuneberg said. "As far as businesses go, it's up to the individual owner to decide whether January is the time they all take a vacation or stay around."

But Webb said she could not afford to stay open even that long.

"For months, there was almost no business — you have to close for five months anyway," she said. "It makes it really hard to stay in business."

She also said the city's prepared food and beverage tax, extended by voters in November, played a role, turning diners away from her restaurant in favor of other spots around the valley.

"I've had people say to me, 'I'm just not going to eat in Ashland anymore,'" Webb said. "We have lost so much business over the years because of it."

Tuneberg said that depends on who is asked. While some owners have rallied against the tax, others have seen their profits rise steadily in that time.

"Ever since I've been here, I've heard people complain the meals tax is an unfair cost for them," Tuneberg said. "But then others have reported record years. I would guess that this is just a hard winter season, because we've had several in a row that have been flat or declining a little bit," he said.

For restaurant owners like Doss, the decline means moving forward with limited resources, and working against an uncertain future. Doss said he had no plans to shut down Ashland's second oldest restaurant, Chateaulin, any time soon. But the prospect of an extended recession has him looking to save on expenses any way he can.

"We're cutting back on staffing, purchases and everything," Doss said. "Hopefully the tourist season will be much busier."

Elon Glucklich is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Contact him at eglucklich@gmail.com.

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