03 January 2010

DuClaw Fells Point: The REST of the Story?

Speculation ran rampant online and vocally over just why DuClaw abruptly pulled out of its location on the Bond Street Wharf in Fells Point, closing on Dec. 30th with one day's notice.

First off, I should point out that normally in the urban restaurant industry, unless a restaurant is a long-established "landmark" location (Obrycki's, Haussner's, Women's Industrial Exchange, etc.), closings are usually abrupt and without warning.  The norm in big cities seems to be a notice taped on or inside the door of the restaurant telling just-sacked staff where to report to pick up their final paychecks and any personal belongings.  It's not unheard of for a large restaurant in a prime urban location to be incurring losses as much as a thousand dollars or more a day.  One snowstorm can hit a restaurant for even more in lost patronage, wages, and perishable foods.

In an e-mail from company owner David Benfield, he outlined the seasonal aspect of business at that location:

The Fells Point store was a very seasonal business, strong in the summer but weak in the winter.  Being next to the water was great when it was warm, but blistering cold wind coming off it in the winter made us very unattractive. The seasonality also made it extremely difficult for us to retain good servers and staff year round.  .  . .  We also had issues running the four units as one brand.  What works well in Bel Air or Mills did not necessarily translate well in the city environment. These things all lead to us not performing to what I would accept as an good standard.
Benfield also noted the difficulties of the competition in the urban environment.  The contentious issue that was rumored to be "unpaid rent" actually had to do with landlord fees, special levies similar to community association fees, which were increased in 2008, as well as looming substantial increases in both real estate taxes and unemployment insurance.  Benfield said the landlord made an offer to buy them out of their lease, and they accepted.

Benfield acknowledged that the business, in addition to being seasonal, was extremely competitive in Fells Point--which, as any reader here knows is one of THE most diversified beer markets on the Eastern Seaboard, if not the country.  Whereas a beer enthusiast would have to travel many miles to find another decent beer bar with a diverse selection in Bel Air, Bowie, or Arundel Mills, one only had to walk to one bar across the street to find more (and arguably better) beer at Duda's just on draft, let alone in bottles.  And that completely disregards the rest of Fells Point: Max's, John Steven, Cat's Eye, Kooper's, Bertha's, Waterfront, Wharf Rat, Red Star, Alexander's, Slainte............

There is one really bad part to losing DuClaw in Fells Point, however:  The location was one of the few family-friendly, general-purpose restaurants down there, if not the only one besides Jimmy's Diner (which closes early evenings).  Think about it: Every other place down there is either an out-and-out bar or better-than-average dining more suitable for a couple minus the kids.  At the same time, it was not fast food, nor was it a franchise like TGI-Benni-Outback-Tuesday-Factory.  I believed the concept was a perfect fit for the neighborhood, unique yet approachable.

However, there were plenty of reports of not-terrific food--even Pint Club members told me the food was "lousy" during the last night--and equally abysmal service.  Compared to most places in the Point, where either they know me on sight or I'm visiting on a slow night and thus get prompt service, at DuClaw it always took longer for me to get acknowledged and served, even if the barkeep recognized me.  There and at other DuClaw locations, it often seemed like the strategy of an open bar--keep the place short-staffed enough that no one can get enough booze to get drunk.  My order of happy hour wings that last night took 40 minutes to arrive, but I didn't have terrific expectations on a last night, of course.

The beer?  Stop kvetching, y'all.  DuClaw's beer is not bad.  I can argue with seasoned beer geeks over just what about Jim and Bo's beer is........  ummmm.......  how do we say it?  Not as......  intriguing as others in our area--and indeed I've actively sought out that debate over the past few months.  They do good, solid beers, and a good 75% of the country would be lucky to have them in their area offering their beers.  I think part of the equation is that 1) you don't see quite the same hop and/or yeast character from their beers as you do with Heavy Seas, Flying Dog, or Olivers; 2) the overall mouthfeel is a little bit emptier than that of most of those other beers (which, of course, would attract as many drinkers as it would turn off); and 3) their marketing and image, even in comparison with the distinctly over-the-top marketing of Flying Dog, just rub some folk the wrong way.  Suffice it to say, however, that the people whose opinions and palates I have come to trust would say they didn't care for most of DuClaw's offerings, but when asked point-blank why, they couldn't discern a specific reason or characteristic.  And I'm not even going to pick the brains of those who can do little more than say "Their beer [vacuums]!!!"

So let's be honest.  The last thing we need in that location is another beer bar.  Or another tapas place.  There is speculation that the group that already runs Kali's Court and Mezze and owns the still-vacant Admiral's Cup may try to move something in there, but I can't see that.  It needs to be strong enough to attract non-seasonal business, but not be yet another upper-end place like Charleston, Kali's, etc.  And they don't need a chain, like the tiny 7-Eleven that just opened a few doors down Thames Street.   Hmmmmm.........  How about Kali's takes that spot and gives Dog Pub back the Admiral's Cup they reportedly swiped out from under them?

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