Every time a restaurant closes, a piece of my heart breaks — for a hundred different reasons. Primarily, though, it means a dream has, at least momentarily, been dashed.
So is the case with Jo’s in Manhattan’s Nolita neighborhood. Established four years ago by Jim Chu and Johnny Santiago, Jo’s sought to fill a unique gap — that of neighborhood watering hole and everyday restaurant with a warm, welcoming vibe. They courted their regulars, held fun contests (Pancakes!), created an anti-social media postcard campaign, and tweaked their menu very carefully, seeking out kitchen talent who understood their vision and respected the price point they had set for their unusually accessible menu. Chu and Santiago, both longtime veterans of New York City’s bar and restaurant scene (despite their youthful looks), gave cheeky seminars on how to semi-succeed in business, always maintaining their optimism and good humor. On any given night, either one or both could be found on premise, greeting diners, pitching in when duty called, and making sure guests were having a good time.
Despite these careful and creative efforts, Jo’s will shut its doors at the end of service tonight after not even half a decade in business. What led to its untimely demise? Well, this piece by Josh Ozersky regarding the state of dining, blogging, and PR in New York City may shed some light on why only those with the deepest of pockets seem destined to survive. But, ultimately, says co-owner Santiago, “I think for us the biggest issue was our space itself. The location was tough, the physical location. In the end, that’s what did us in.”
The challenges of the physical space are something Santiago and I had discussed previously. Passersby never quite caught on to the fact that Jo’s, like The Tasting Room (where I had my wedding dinner!) before it, was more than the intimate bar space visible from the street. Tucked away in the back, just past the host stand but not visible to the untrained eye, are TWO dining rooms. But it’s hard to fill rooms when folks don’t realize they’re there — or would prefer to sit up front to see and be seen. Jo’s immediate predecessor, The Tasting Room, shuttered in the same space after just a few years, and, prior to that, the once-successful M & R Bar closed in 2003 after its lease was up (and its rent was, presumably, astronomically hiked). Santiago admits he was charmed by the space, despite its immediate challenges, because of his fond memories of M & R Bar. In hindsight, he observes, “M & R Bar worked well because they had a garden in the back. It’s challenging to do a garden anymore because a lot of residents [whose apartments would look out onto a restaurant's garden seating area] don’t want that.”
When asked how the power of the interwebs have changed the restaurant game since he opened his first venture, the former operator of Torch, a supper club on Manhattan’s Lower East Side (which, true to its name, burned down), said, “The difference between opening Jo’s compared to Torch is that the way people discover restaurants is completely different now. To me, a restaurant is about an experience. However, now people can go online and see photos, read your menus, find out what other people think about it, and decide which dishes to order. So, they’re showing up with a predisposed set of expectations rather than a sense of adventure. It’s good and bad at the same time.” As a result of this cultural shift in dining, he notes, “Someone has to constantly be reaching out, pushing the restaurant to bloggers, writers, and festivals. If you want to *just* run a restaurant, I think it’s kind of impossible. To stay relevant, it seems like you have to constantly participate in all of these forums and events.”
After Jo’s last blowout this evening, what does the future hold for Santiago? “I’m going to catch up on some sleep! And, I’ll take the summer to reconnect with friends.” Because restaurateurs are well known for their resilience in the face of setbacks, I wondered if there will be another restaurant in his future. He laughed, “It’s a sickness. A bad habit! But, I like to create experiences for people; I love meeting them, finding out what they do, talking to them, and taking care of them. I guess that’s the difference between being in this industry and other service businesses. It’s not what you do; it’s who you are.”
Stop by to raise a glass to Jo’s tonight.