Jamaica Plain eateries change with evolving neighborhood

David Doyle and Robyn McGrath outside of their restaurant Little Dipper. (Photo byYuri Bredbeck)

By Sydney Maes
Boston University News Service

In an evolving neighborhood like Jamaica Plain, store fronts in busy shopping areas are as equally likely to change as the neighborhood housing options have in the last several years. On the main thoroughfare, Centre Street, at least six restaurants have had shifts in ownership or overall concepts since January.Each of the six restaurants made changes for their individual circumstances, but ultimately they were a result of owners adapting to a restaurant life cycle of a developing neighborhood, said Michael Reiskind of the JP Neighborhood Council.

“I think restaurants are naturally changing and evolving,” said Reiskind. “They change a lot to work with the neighborhoods. Otherwise they’ll fail.”At first, seeing multiple closures on Centre Street, in addition to others in streets around the neighborhood, may seem to signal trouble for restaurants in JP, which has seen an expansion of new housing over the last several years. But David Doyle, a local restaurant owner of eight years, said he sees the changes in the area, specifically the new housing construction, as a positive time for restaurants to grow with the area.

For instance, due to the termination of his business partnership this year, in June Doyle closed his Centre Street Cafe, famous for its weekend brunch, and reopened the location as Little Dipper the following month.

Doyle opted to establish a new concept rather than give up the space, and he sought out a new business partnership with Robyn McGrath, the chef at his restaurant Casa Verde. The pair came up with the concept for Little Dipper together with the goal to create a concept that would add to what they thought was lacking in the neighborhood—a casual diner.

Doyle, owner of three restaurants in JP, said it’s difficult to identify one specific reason why the neighborhood has seen so many changes in its restaurants. But, he notes it’s a tough business to run.

“Because of all of the TV shows like Anthony Bourdain and others like that, it’s easy to romanticize the business, but I think anyone who has been in it for awhile would agree and say it’s one of the tougher ones,” said Doyle.

Doyle’s inclination to create in Little Dipper a space the neighborhood lacks reiterates a belief other experts share: One of the key elements of success for restaurants is to understand the neighborhood and adjust to the people’s wants and needs.

“I think it’s easy to believe as a new restaurant owner that you can come up with an idea that’s going to work in your neighborhood and people are going to love,” said Doyle. “But it’s actually a really hard thing to keep everyone happy.”

As Reiskind went through the list of around 30 restaurants that line Centre Street, he wasn’t able to pinpoint a universal reason for plethora of the new restaurant names. Some were under new ownership due to retirement of the previous owners, some were due to a closure of a previous restaurant, others were new concepts launched under the same ownership.

Reiskind, who is also the secretary of the JP Business and Professionals Association which many of the restaurants in the neighborhood are a part of, said since each transition occurred so naturally during the year, he was surprised to see so many listed as changed at the end of the year.

As for Little Dipper, Doyle said he’s confident in the simplicity of the concept, and that he’s pleased with the business over the last five months. He said positive responses from guests in the restaurant and online have been great barometers of their success. Little Dipper has also been listed on The Infatuation, a popular restaurant review and recommendation site, and its “Boston Brunch Guide”.

Doyle, however, said it wasn’t a smooth process during the concept’s first six months. Little Dipper has made a few adjustments to hours of operation to appeal to customers by offering breakfast and all-day service. Doyle said he understands the risk that comes with making too many changes early on, but hopes consistency and new special events will allow Little Dipper to grow in 2019.

The quick turnover for new restaurants in Jamaica Plain doesn’t come as a shock to Doyle. In fact he said he wouldn’t be surprised if some of the newer JP restaurants nearby closed in a year because of how common it is for new places to close in the first three years.

Indeed, this issue goes beyond Jamaica Plain, according to an analysis from the Perry Group, a firm of experts who consult on restaurants and hotels, which notes that most new restaurants fail within the first year. Of those who survive the first year, 70 percent are likely to close within the next three to five years.

Dana Hatic of Eater Boston, an online food publication, has been keeping a close eye on the closures and openings around the city as she writes about restaurants that make those big changes and other food trends in the Boston area.

“I don’t think there is one symptom you can pinpoint,” Hatic said. “I think it’s for the most part life cycles of the business.”

In some cases there are issues with rent prices increasing. Hatic said she has noticed rising rent as a cause for closure in areas like Back Bay and downtown Boston over the last few months. The city is developing all over, and when landlord or building management changes, there is a possibility for a change in rent, she said.

In Jamaica Plain, rising housing costs are an issue for many. Residents are increasingly unable to afford spikes in their rent and sometimes business owners see the same problem. However, Reiskind said he doesn’t believe a sudden rent increase is contributing to most of the changes on the Jamaica Plain restaurant scene.

“It’s hard to keep rent prices down everywhere for residents, for restaurant owners and retail spaces too,” Reiskind said. “But the restaurants [in JP] aren’t closing because rent has gone up; it’s because they haven’t been making rent for a little while.”

Although Reiskind doesn’t know specifically why certain restaurant owners have missed rent, he suggests it could be due to poor business models, a lack of interest in the type of food presented, or a variety of other factors.

Despite the general decline of independent restaurants, as reported by market research company The NPD Group, the firm said over half of the commercial restaurants in the U.S. are independent like the businesses in JP. In other words, these changes in the neighborhood are noteworthy but nothing to be immensely worried about. The same changes are occurring all over the city and the country as a natural progression of the restaurant industry.

That said, independent restaurants are not doomed, according to The NPD Group. Success for each space is going to come at a different rate and with a personalized method for each one.

Reiskind said he sees the potential for success in JP thanks to an initiative from Ayanna Pressley, congresswoman-elect and former Boston City Council member, to issue more alcohol permits. He said more permits open up a whole new source of revenue for restaurants.

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