February 3, 2023

How to Save Historic Food Establishments

When an old neighborhood restaurant closes for good, it can be shocking and disheartening. Gentrification, displacement, and the inability to find an adequate owner are just some of the factors that shutter establishments that have been around for generations.

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

How Patrons Can Support Historic Small Restaurants

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 at 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. For example, in 2013, San Francisco Heritage launched a Legacy Bars and Restaurants program that included more than 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.

You can also get involved in a “Buy Local” campaign with your neighborhood association or start one yourself. These campaigns encourage consumers to spend on independent businesses, help foster community economic growth, and maintain unique neighborhood character.

Talk to the restaurant 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.

Advocate for 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.

How Restaurant Managers Can Help Protect Historic Food Establishments

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. 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. You can also 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.

Exterior of a brown building with the words Casa Vicky on a sign in front. The roof has dark brown shingles and a row of newspaper boxes and a car sits in front.

photo by: Cristiano Tomás via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0

Casa Vicky in San Jose, California

Consider purchasing your establishment’s 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 might 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 at your food establishment.

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 or legacy businesses.

Look into whether your local community groups or coalitions have started historic, legacy, 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.

Use free city services designed to help small business owners.

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.

For example, the New York City Department of Small Business Services offers entrepreneurs and owners a range of programs that include financing, business planning, legal review, navigating government, and hiring.

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. An earlier version of this story was first published on October 17, 2014.

Dooky Chase's Exterior Shutters

photo by: Sara Essex Bradley

Dooky Chase's Restaurant, New Orleans.

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