Local real estate listings are offering a broad menu these days with a bevy of restaurants and food businesses up for sale. After its sudden closure early this year, Fernbridge's Angelina Inn is available for $1.9 million and the up-and-running Gill's by the Bay has a price tag of $2.5 million for the property and business. The liquor license is included in the $1.3 million asking price for the iconic Ivanhoe Hotel, Restaurant and Saloon in Ferndale, as is the license for the Jam in Arcata, for $435,000.
Even before the pandemic, the restaurant business was always risky. But since then, it's been an especially rocky ride between closures, the starts and stops of reopening, supply chain issues, staffing and inflation. Along with those economic realities, running a food business doesn't always leave room for life outside the kitchen.
It was only in May the splashy, new Mazzotti's sign went up over the Arcata Plaza mainstay after a massive interior overhaul. But now the 11,496-square-foot restaurant, with its new bar and stage, is on the market for $850,000. "It's a business decision that best suits our foreseeable future," says owner Joe Mazzotti via text message. He's reluctant to discuss the sale because, he says, "I don't want to make this fodder for the haters out there," referring to criticism of the restaurant on a Reddit thread. "Anything I say can be misconstrued or taken any way by a prospective buyer or interested party ... or the people who have their opinions online." But a post on the restaurant's Facebook page clarifies the restaurant is not closing, just preparing for "a new chapter" and "looking for someone who is interested in keeping Mazzotti's and the employees intact and we will not settle for anything less."
Joe Tan, who hopes to sell his Curry Leaf business for $140,000 in Eureka, is less reserved. He says sales for the large pan-Asian spot average $2,500 per day but the work is overwhelming with two other restaurants to run — Nori in Arcata and the newly reopened Overtime Pizza and Bar in Eureka — and for now, he says his plans for a rooftop sushi place in Eureka are on hold. "There's long hours, there's stress ... everything is too expensive, ingredients and employee insurance," he laments with a small laugh. Still, he thinks Curry Leaf could be perfect for a family to run — just not his family, with whom he'd like to spend more time. If the price was right, Tan says he'd even sell the bustling Nori.
It's no secret restaurants in Garberville are struggling along with the rest of the businesses there as the wholesale cannabis market has slowed. But that's not the main reason Moises Lopez put his Eel River Café up for sale a month ago. "I'm sick, I have cancer and I'm ready to retire," he says over the phone. He's run the café, which opened in 1927, for nearly 12 years. "My health is more important. My business is good," he says, but he simply can't work and wants to be with his family. "It's a bad time to sell it, but whatever is gonna happen is gonna happen."
Family and health are at the core of Carmac McGraby's decision to sell the Couxp truck and business, too. "I have a toddler and I'm working 70- to 80-hour weeks right now and I'm not really able to be a parent, or at least the parent that I wanna be," he says, adding his child's congenital heart issue will also require surgery in the near future. "If the circumstances were different, I don't think I would sell," he adds, noting business has been good. "Life throws some curveballs at you."
But McGraby's child is doing better than expected and he says he's excited to spend more time together. At $199,000, McGraby says he's gotten a few nibbles on the truck, its new equipment and the five-year lease on the commissary kitchen he built in the Hatchet House. And he isn't opposed to staying on to work through the transition and beyond. "Just not a 3 a.m. to 8 p.m. day," he says, which is what he's been clocking as owner.
The iconic Eureka restaurant Café Waterfront began as a saloon in the early days of the port town. It had a life as a sandwich shop, too, before it was converted into a restaurant and bar with a lush sunset mural, and it's been in Ben Smith's family for 37 years. Smith has run it since the early 2000s and in September, he and his mother, who owns the building, put the whole thing up for sale: the business, its inventory, equipment and furniture, liquor license and the furnished bed and breakfast rooms upstairs, all listed at $2.6 million.
Smith, who is in his 50s, says "Restaurants kind of consume you and I feel like I'm just kind of ready to move on." He says it's a tough time to sell, given rising interest rates, a tough economy and the risky nature of the restaurant business, but nobody in his family wants to take it on and there are other things he wants to do. "I figure if I'm going to do this, I'd better do it before I get too old," he says. Aside from college and a few years working as a teacher, Smith has been working at Café Waterfront since he was a teenager. With his own son grown, he says he'd like to travel some, "take a minute and breathe, and then come back and start another adventure."
It might have been easier, Smith says, to sell as pandemic restrictions ended, when stimulus checks abounded. But at that time he was just trying to keep things going. Since then, customers have been steady, he says, noting, "It's a valuable business and if someone who knows restaurants was to look at our statements, they'd see that."
Still, it's not without challenges, and he's not shocked to see the number of restaurants selling locally. "In the restaurant business, your margins are pretty slim. So when you have the kinds of increases we've seen ... sometimes it's good just to break even." The cost of ingredients, he says, has jumped seemingly randomly. "One week it's beef, next week it's eggs, next week it's cheese," he says, noting he was recently shocked to see the price of green onions and fryer oil double. "It's been really hard to get people to work when you need employees and with the inflated food costs, I can see how people would say it's time to get out."
After 15 years, Southside Mike's BBQ truck owner Mike Ross retired from the food business in April, returning to case management work with Arcata House Partnership. "Finally got beat over the head one too many times. First it was COVID, then the supply chain and then the hike in all the prices," he says, especially the cost of meat. "It became a bit too much for me. ... At , the bounce back just isn't what it used to be."
While the overhead for a food truck is lower than a brick-and-mortar restaurant, Ross says the cost of operations is still "a killer." He also says the local market is oversaturated with mobile food businesses. "I love that people are trying their hand at the business ... that's awesome," he says, however, "It's a small population here and an even smaller population with expendable cash."
Still, Ross thinks a person with energy and a menu that hits the sweet spots of demand and cost per plate can make it work with a limited menu. Doing a couple things well for a fair price, he says, is the key. "Or one super fantastic thing." He hopes the price — $57,000 for the truck he says has "everything a restaurant has except for a dishwasher" and $5,000 for the 14-foot, custom-built barbecue mounted on a double-axle trailer — is affordable enough for somebody. "I'd love to see someone take it on and do something good," Ross says, adding he daydreams about it going to a nonprofit for a youth training program.
"Running a restaurant is a 24-hour business. Even when you're not working, you're thinking about it," Ross says. "When you're in the kitchen and you hear a dish break, you're like, 'Jesus.'" He says he stayed in the business as long as he did because he loved it. That and tenacity, he says, are requirements. "You're really going against all odds."
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at (707) 442-1400, extension 320, or [email protected]. Follow her on Instagram @JFumikoCahill and on Mastodon @jenniferfumikocahill.