There was a time when John Weichman, as the owner and executive chef of a 260-seat fine dining restaurant on the Beltline, sold 300 pounds of prime rib a week. That was the mid-’80s. The last time he offered the entré, at his much smaller, contemporary restaurant The Italian Fisherman late last year, he sold just three cuts.
The Italian Fisherman, which opened in September 2011 on Old Shell Road in Midtown, will close after serving its final dinner Valentine’s Day. It will join a long list of restaurants, fine dining and otherwise, that only exist in the memories of Mobilians.
Weichman, whose 40-plus year career in culinary arts may have peaked as the owner of Weichman’s All Seasons from 1982 until it closed in 1995, most recently decided to throw in the tall, white, billowy, classic toque hat after watching sales decline at The Italian Fisherman for the past two years.
Weichman was a chemical engineer before he married into the Greek family that operated the former Constantine’s, a storied Mobile restaurant that closed in the early ‘80s. Since, he’s traveled the globe as an independent restaurateur and caterer, at times serving as the state’s representative to the National Restaurant Association. In 1981 and 1985, Weichman catered inauguration parties for President Ronald Reagan and once, he even shook the former president’s hand.
But recently, as he planned his final menu at The Italian Fisherman and before he enters semi-retirement as a personal chef and restaurant consultant, Weichman reflected on changes to the local dining scene.
“There used to not be such a discriminating palate,” he said. “Forty years ago, Mobile didn’t have 20 different ethnic options. It was pretty much just meat and potatoes. But these days, kids will turn their nose up at a pot roast. How many young people do you know who would order lamb off a menu?”
Weichman’s All Seasons opened in 1982 with 140 seats, expanding to 260 seats by 1986. At the time, his maître d wore a tuxedo. At its peak, All Seasons served around 110,000 people per year and reported about $1.7 million in sales. With more than 300 labels, it also boasted the largest wine selection in the state.
Then Weichman said, the Beltline and points west were invaded by corporate dine-in and drive-through restaurants. Sales steadily declined, leading to All Seasons’ eventual closure 20 years ago.
“Originally, fine dining was a family affair,” he said. “You’d have fathers pass their restaurants on to their sons. But the children of those proprietors, they saw the writing on the wall. Today, they are all engineers, or doctors or dentists. They didn’t see a future in it. I saw, if there was one, it would have to be scaled back. Now, no self-funded restaurant is going to open with more than 100 seats, if they are smart.”
Weichman spent the interim years as an executive chef for multiple restaurants at what he called the “premier retirement community of the Midwest.” He returned to Mobile to open the former Old Shell Road Grill in the same building as The Italian Fisherman, before introducing his most recent establishment in 2011.
Since, Weichman has tried promotions, incentives, and TV appearances to get people through the door. Once, he mailed out 40,000 coupons to seven different zip codes, but only a handful came back.
He admitted The Italian Fisherman received mixed reviews on social media websites like UrbanSpoon, TripAdvisor and Yelp, but also pointed out that many of the complaints were from one-time reviewers about the kitchen’s expediency.
“I think the cultural expectations have changed,” he said, adding that many of today’s diners have no patience for an upscale meal, cooked to order.
“Some men won’t even remove their hats when they come inside and rather than carry on a conversation, you see a table full of people staring at their cell phones,” he said. “Many people just want to eat and leave. You would think a town of 200,000 people would be able to support 200 tables for fine dining, but I think most of those customers have moved across the bay or to West Mobile.”
But other anecdotal evidence suggests a restaurant’s success may not depend on how busy it is, or if it does have overwhelmingly favorable reviews. It may not even matter if it’s won a Nappie Award, or if it’s where you got engaged, or celebrated a promotion. The fact is, most restaurants, like the food they serve, have an expiration date.
Industry lore often suggests 90 percent of restaurants fail within their first year, but a 2006 study by a professor at Ohio State University put the failure rate, at least in that state, at 25 percent. Within two years, the study found, about 60 percent of restaurants fail, which is in line with other startups in the service industry.
The Mobile Health Department couldn’t provide exact numbers by deadline, but in the past 18 months, the area has lost such establishments such as True Midtown Kitchen, Taste of Vietnam, Little House Midtown, Samurai J, Busaba’s, Shamrock, Rose and Thistle, Tacky Jacks, The Shed and Big Al’s Barbeque. Many local diners were shocked when the Tiny Diny, a Mobile institution for more than 60 years, closed in 2012. But last year, even a Denny’s on the Beltline closed, sadly serving its last Moon over My Hammy.
At the same time, longevity in the area isn’t that unusual. Wintzell’s Oyster House has served them fried, stewed and nude for more than 75 years. Queen G’s celebrated 25 years last May. Comparable menus at establishments such Heroes Sports Bar and Grille and Butch Cassidy’s have flourished for close to two decades on their own. Roshell’s diner on Springhill Avenue has operated continuously in the same family since 1952. Known as Mobile’s oldest restaurant, The Dew Drop Inn served its first hot dog in 1924 and has been open ever since.
More recently, Lap’s built a fortress of a restaurant on the Causeway, where you can also buy bait, tackle and a case of beer for the boat. Bistro Ecoffier breathed a new, French life into a long-vacant building on Dauphin Street in Midtown. Half Shell Oyster House opened an expansive new franchise on Airport Boulevard at I-65. Nearby, a long-awaited Melting Pot opened its doors after several regulatory delays.
Downtown, Moe’s Original BBQ has provided a lively new anchor to the west end of Lower Dauphin Street as it prepares to open another location in the former Big Al’s building out in WeMo. LoDa Bier Garten is making an impressive go of it in the former Hopjack’s and Picklefish location on the corner of Dauphin and Joachim and Noble South is offering something new where Busaba’s once was. Cotton State BBQ offers its own smoked meats near the federal courthouse and Union has built a reputation for fine steaks. And Bob’s Downtown Restaurant is now pumping out dogs and home cooking on the corner of Jackson and Saint Francis.
Chicken would seem like a pretty safe investment, with new entries including Chicken Salad Chick and PDQ in West Mobile, Foosackly’s opening a bigger dine-in restaurant on Dauphin Street with an extra-long drive-through and Chick-fil-A opening on the ground floor of the RSA Trustmark building downtown.
Other, short-term success stories include Yak the Kathmandu Kitchen, which introduced the area to Tibetan cuisine just three years ago and is currently expanding to a second location in Fairhope. The Mediterranean Sandwich Co. opened with fewer than 10 tables downtown in 2009, but recently added new locations in West Mobile and Daphne.
At the same time, Mobilians are also demanding more of their grocery stores. You can still find the generic, cost-plus options of yesteryear, but with the recent introduction of more upscale markets like Publix, Rouses and Whole Foods, shoppers have increasing access to exotic brands, organic vegetables, grass-fed beef and free-range poultry.
Frankie Little is a familiar face to many area diners, one who currently manages front-of-house at The Bull after pulling similar duties at the on-again, off-again La Pizzeria for years before it finally closed permanently last October.
While not specifically speaking of decisions that led to La Pizzeria’s closure, Little said independent restaurants tend to be affected by both market and personal influences, while their small profit margins leave little room for error.
“With the cost of everything going up, it may be easier for some places to make a profit by cutting corners,” he said. “Then you risk losing [customers], who aren’t willing to pay the same or more for something of a lower quality.”
But Little, a Baldwin County native who has also lived in Austin, Texas, said Mobile is increasingly becoming more of a dining destination, although it still lacks much of what many large cities have to offer.
“Ten to 20 years ago, there was no fine dining downtown,” he said. “Now, we’re trying to give Mobile what they want … but it’s kind of like survival of the fittest.”
The Bull has been open six years, offering a relatively small dinner menu with entrees ranging from $17 black bean cakes to a $39 beef tenderloin. They are also open for lunch, but only on Fridays.
Little noted the recent appearance of local food trucks on the scene, but also mentioned downtown still lacks such simple offerings as a build-your-own burrito stand, or a noodle restaurant, or a pizza-by-the-slice window. But at the same time, downtown also lacks another important feature of similarly-sized cities; residents.
“There are only so many customers,” he said, suggesting, “if [the University of South Alabama] were downtown it would be such a different city.”
But recently, downtown has benefitted from an increasing number of hotel rooms and more are on the way. A new form-based development code and the introduction of the aircraft industry offer still more promise of opportunity.
Chef Osman Ademovic, who fled war in his native Bosnia to open the critically acclaimed Osman’s restaurant on Halls Mill Road 15 years ago, said for him, the key to longevity has been relatively simple.
“If you open with a mind to get rich it will be the biggest mistake you ever made. If you do it right, you have a steady job for yourself and a steady income for your family,” he said.
On a recent Saturday night, all 35 seats in his restaurant were reserved, and additional inquiries calling in were turned away.
“I spend lots of time saying ‘no’ to more customers,” Ademovic said. “I’d rather serve 35 people perfectly than serve 40 people and make a mistake. Bad word can spread in no time.”
Ademovic cited the small, loyal front-of-house staff led by his wife as key to his own restaurant’s success and numerous accolades, which include readers choice awards from several area publications including Lagniappe.
“It’s important not to have too novice employees,” he said. “My people know our customers by name.”
Meanwhile, he also acknowledged that his short-lived, second endeavor known as Osman’s Midtown was a rapid failure in 2013.
“I couldn’t be in two places at once,” he offered.
Ademovic listed Ruth’s Chris, Noja, The Bull, Legacy Bar and Grill and Via Emilia as places where he likes to escape the kitchen and enjoy a fine dining experience of his own. He said the news of Weichman’s closure was “surprising and saddening.”
Meanwhile, Ademovic said his own customers’ loyalty is such that he doesn’t feel threatened by the 15 new restaurants possibly opening at the 600,000 square-foot McGowin Park retail development about a mile down the road. He predicted it would be a shopping destination with convenient dining, rather than a dining destination with convenient shopping.
“I have regular clientele that have come in here for years,” he said. “They come here, they know what to expect.”
Back at The Italian Fisherman, Weichman believes he’s gained some valuable experience and hopes future restaurateurs can benefit from the lessons learned.
“A start up investment can be tremendous,” he said. “I encourage those without a lot of capital to look for a turn-key operation, to have a business plan, to try to identify every conceivable cost. Even the seasonings have value. Think about spending 3 to 5 percent for advertising and promotions and don’t forget to factor in costs for maintenance, repair and even theft. Have a signature and build a reputation. A novice could get real lost — it’s a minefield.”
Most importantly, be prepared to work.
“You’re going to spend 10 hours a day shopping, prepping and serving, and that’s for dinner only,” he said.
At the end of the day, Weichman said he has no regrets, but he does hope to see more independent restaurants flourish in Mobile.
“I turned 71 last July and I’m probably the oldest working chef in Mobile,” he said. “It’s been a wonderful career, but there has been a cultural change and I’m too old to reinvent myself. If I can impart any wisdom, it’s that I hope more young people take a chance going outside their comfort zone and get realistic about supporting independent operators, because that money stays here and at the end of the day, it makes the city a better place to live.”