October 17, 2014

How to Save Historic Food Establishments


When an old neighborhood restaurant closes for good, it can be not only shocking, but disheartening as well. Waves of rising rents, homogenization, and the inability to find an adequate owner are just some of the factors that cause establishments that have been around for generations to shutter.

This toolkit explores some of the ways within your power to help keep your favorite historic food establishments -- from restaurants and cafés, to bakeries and markets -- in business.

Patrons can:

Think before you eat.

All businesses, but especially historic, independently owned ones, depend on capital to survive. It is in the interests of both tourists and residents to spend money at establishments that are rich in history and tradition, rather than franchises, since it ensures the money will not only stay within the community, but also help keep a unique (and delicious) part of history alive. If you have trouble finding such establishments or want to explore others, see what resources are available through your local preservation group or neighborhood association.

  • Example: Last year, San Francisco Heritage launched their ‘Legacy Bars and Restaurants’ program that includes over 130 of the city’s historic places to eat and drink. This type of program aggregates historic dining establishments, helping connect them to new consumers.
  • Example: Get involved in a “Buy Local” campaign with your neighborhood association or start one yourself. Such campaigns encourage consumers to spend on independent businesses, help foster community economic growth, and maintain unique neighborhood character.

Katz's Delicatessen on Manhattan's Lower East Side has been in business since 1888.
Katz's Delicatessen on Manhattan's Lower East Side has been in business since 1888.

Talk to the owner.

Independently owned food establishments are sometimes family affairs, which means getting to the owner could be easier than you think. Don’t hesitate to strike up a conversation with staff to see if the owner is around to chat. A conversation could be a good opportunity to learn how the business is faring and if it needs any help.

Support the establishment’s initiatives.

Establishments not covered by rent-control laws might face prohibitive rent hikes that make it difficult, if not impossible, to remain open. In these cases, see if the managers have started a petition that customers can sign asking the landlord for rent concessions or negations. Some landlords may be willing to compromise on rent increases when they see consumers rallying to keep a business in place.

  • Example: In 2013, the Pino Prime Meat Market in Greenwich Village faced a rent increase so high that it would have forced the business to close. The owners began a petition to stay in business and received over a thousand signatures, which helped sway the landlord to let them renew their least for the next five years.

Management can:

Support proactive legislation and encourage patrons to do the same.

Legislation aimed at protecting small businesses has been introduced in some jurisdictions, but is often undermined by corporate interests. For instance, the Small Business Jobs Survival Act in New York City would require landlords to negotiate with small businesses if they could not afford an increase.

If such legislation has been introduced in your community, find out who sponsored it and write them a letter of support, offer to testify if there is a hearing, and encourage patrons of your business to voice support as well. If there, write to your local elected official and tell them about the value of your historic business and why greater protections are needed to ensure its long-term survival.

New York's Minetta Tavern opened in the late 1930s, closed briefly in 2008 and reopened a year later.
New York's Minetta Tavern opened in the late 1930s, closed briefly in 2008, and reopened a year later.

Consider purchasing your building.

If financially feasible, consider buying out your landlord. In an era when commercial rents can double or triple at the end of a lease, it can be make more financial sense to buy your space outright, and it ensures that a landlord will not be able to take advantage of you again.

Ensure quality and efficiency.

Maintaining the level of service and quality that regular customers expect from your business is crucial to making sure they return. Handling maintenance issues in a timely fashion will also help keep the situation manageable.

Team up with other historic businesses.

Look into whether your local community groups or coalitions have started historic or independent business associations. These networks bring together businesses that share an overarching vision for their communities and an appreciation for history. They can also help equip owners with tools to stimulate growth, visibility, and partnerships.

Sam Wo was one of the oldest restaurants in San Francisco's Chinatown when it closed in 2012.
Sam Wo was one of the oldest restaurants in San Francisco's Chinatown when it closed in 2012.

Use free city services.

Since it is in the government’s economic interest to have a thriving small business community, some cities have introduced specialized programs to help small or historic business owners. These services are often low-cost or free, and can help connect your business to a skilled workforce as well as identify incentive programs that can save your business money.

With a little research and community support, we can all help protect historic dining establishments.

This toolkit was adapted from the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation’s article Menu Options for Saving Important Food Establishments, and through consultation with Karen Loew, Director of East Village and Special Projects at GVSHP.

Join the movement to save and sustain historic African American places. The African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund will help every American see themselves, their history, and their potential in our collective story and national cultural landscape.

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