The concept at Mar Adentro was my attempt to keep up with the current wave of seafood restaurants happening all around Los Angeles. I thought: Traditional mariscos restaurants are tried and true. How cool would it be to do an old-school-meets-new-school Mexican mariscos restaurant?
I had a killer location right in the heart of Studio City with plenty of traffic, and there are a bunch of other successful restaurants nearby. It was going to be the fifth restaurant that I would open, too, so I knew the ins and outs of running a restaurant. I felt very confident.
What could go wrong?
The first four months went smoothly. Those are usually the hardest months for most restaurants, though this rule is sometimes exempt in LA, since new restaurant openings tend to get really hyped up and attract many people at first. That was our first mistake; we didn't capitalize on that momentum and the people who came that first time didn't necessarily come back.
The biggest mistake, though, was trying our luck with that whole "no menu modifications or substitutions" thing. We had never tried applying this before to any of our restaurants but we thought it was something new and worth trying out. The main reason we tried it was simply because it was a lot better for the kitchen in terms of consistency and execution of the food. Down the road, we saw that adding that verbiage to our menu just made guests really angry. In my experience after trying it out, this rule will probably only work for you if your customer demographic is among the 25 to 35 age range, because they will probably be a little more adventurous and be open to the idea of "well, if that's how the chef wants to do it, cool."
Try explaining this fairly new rule in the restaurant world to two 50-year-old women and keep denying customers the ability to order their dressing on the side, or their food without onions or cheese, and you'll see what I'm talking about. A lot of people got mad, real mad. It got to the point where people would say, "If you don't take said item out of this dish I'm leaving." This rule caused me to piss off a lot of people, week after week, and it really hurt me in the long run. For a while, we stuck to our guns but we got tired of making people angry. We decided to not be as firm and change our philosophy, except for our popular items like lobster-bacon guacamole, which wouldn't be the same without those ingredients, but the damage was done. It was too late. Those people were never coming back.
On a personal level, it was hard not to take it personally. I know I'm not a failure but this restaurant failed, and having to realize this was hard.
The other thing that I realized was that not everyone loves seafood. Out of a group of five people who could come in to dine, there was always one person who did not like or could not eat seafood. We had steak and carnitas but that wasn't enough variety for our non-seafood-eating customers. Down the line, we added more items like chicken but again, it was too late. Our Monday and Tuesday nights got really horrible.
We were losing money fast. In hindsight, I should have closed way earlier but we tried to make it better before giving up: We offered more promotions; we changed the menu; we did a little more PR; we did Blackboard Eats; we did DineLA, but nothing worked.
The decision to finally close was made between my business partner and me, since I don't have any investors. The reasoning behind it was: Do I keep it open and lose the money it takes to pay rent and operate? Or do we just lose the money needed to pay rent and try to come up with another concept?
You know the saying 'the customer is always right'? Well, they're not always right, but that's who you always have to take care of and ultimately you've got to do whatever it takes to make the guests happy.
A few days before our last day, we had to tell our staff of 18 people we were closing. They were all shocked because our weekends were decent and they all made adequate money during shifts. This was super hard for me because after successfully opening five restaurants in the past, I've never had to close one before. On a personal level, it was hard not to take it personally. I know I'm not a failure but this restaurant failed, and having to realize this was hard. It hurt us. We sucked. What did we do wrong? What did we need to fix? These were just some of the negative questions that were going on in my head.
That was obviously the wrong way to think and I started to focus on the positive. Some people open a restaurant and then it fails, and then they never open a restaurant again. I was not going to be one of these people. I needed to believe in myself, our food, and persevere. I realized that having to close a restaurant is all part of the foodservice business. For all I know, I may open five more restaurants and two of those are going to fail. I eventually got over it and decided that I wasn't done yet. I snapped out of it and decided to open a more casual bar-taqueria concept in the same space that I'm calling Mercado Taqueria. That menu will have things like carne asada, grilled chicken, guacamole, pico de gallo, and salsas, and other more familiar things.
And you can bet that I'm never, ever, ever going to put "no modifications" in menus again. I am never going to be so arrogantly restrictive ever again also because it really hurt us. People don't like to hear "no." You know the saying "the customer is always right"? Well, they're not always right, but that's who you always have to take care of and ultimately you've got to do whatever it takes to make the guests happy if you want your restaurant to stick around.
As told to Javier Cabral
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
Jesse Gomez is a restaurateur based in Los Angeles. For more information about his contemporary Mexican restaurants, check out his website.