Commentary

What Made That Café Fail? Lessons from a Tough Business

Despite love from the neighborhood, a Carroll Gardens newbie closed before making it a year. Here’s how to help your Brooklyn favorites thrive

Colin Clarke outside Sheila's on Court Street, when prospects seemed bright (Photo courtesy of Sheila's)

Carroll Gardens has lost a gem.

Sheila’s, the all-day bakery, café and restaurant, which opened in May and The Bridge profiled a few short months ago, served its last meal on Dec. 10. Of course, a restaurant closing isn’t a shock these days, given the ultra competitive and cyclical nature of New York’s culinary world. Restaurants come and go in this borough like passing fads, as a stroll down Smith Street will prove.

But Sheila’s surprise closing is more distressing than most. Maybe it was because of how deeply the team wanted to integrate into the neighborhood. Maybe it’s because of the loss of that charming outdoor space. Maybe it’s because the owners, Colin Clarke and his wife Molly Carlot-Clarkewere so kind and hard-working. In a year like we’ve just had, you want to believe that kind and hard-working people who pour their best efforts into a project will achieve success, because that’s how the world should work.

We tend to want to place blame or figure out the cause, but the sad fact, according to owner Clarke, is things in the restaurant world are rarely so black-and-white as “wrong time” or “wrong place.” In this case, staying open would have required, at a minimum, raising menu prices significantly, and the huge endeavor of shifting the pricing structure still wouldn’t guarantee success. Alternatively, Clarke says, they would have needed visits to the restaurant to double or triple, which wouldn’t happen overnight. Because of their spot on south Court Street, they needed to access diners from surrounding neighborhoods, which takes publicity, marketing, and the big one: time.

restaurant

Clarke and his wife Molly Carlot-Clarke at their favorite table in the restaurant (Photo by Harry Koepp)

Reflecting on what he learned through the process, Clarke says there was a high density of small lessons, from cosmetic changes to ingredients to presentation. His advice for aspiring restauranteurs? “What you need to have is a high level of grit and resolve. There were so many times when things will happen and you’re like, ‘That’s it, we’re done, and we can’t overcome them.’ Even when it came to [the end], with our finances, we thought, we’ve overcome so many challenges already, how can we overcome this one?” he says. “You may think you’re scrappy and gritty and you can roll up your sleeves, but times that by ten.”

He also points to the warm reception from a base of neighborhood regulars–some shed tears when they heard the news–as crucial in those early days: “The amount of support that we got from Carroll Gardens was amazing and deep and nurturing. It wasn’t our experience that people weren’t supporting us. But was it enough people? That’s a different thing.”

For neighbors of the closed restaurant, there’s a pang of guilt, which will be more acute if the closed restaurant is replaced by yet another real-estate brokerage. What else could have been done? How often do you see a place shuttered and think, “Wow, and I never got around to trying that brisket hash”? But it takes a lot of effort to integrate a new place into your routine. And if you live even a mile away, the restaurant might as well be in Iceland. It’s easy to wear your neighborhood goggles, and cling to standbys that make the city feel accessible, doable. But it’s also restrictive—you can’t like what you don’t try.

Understanding the complexity of what makes a success can also help you discover how to support your favorite businesses. Here are some easy ways to become super fans of new businesses throughout the new year:

Look Beyond Your Block

Seeking out new places in your neighborhood is the easiest path, but why not go one neighborhood over? When figuring out a dinner place, Clark says he would ask himself, Which neighborhood do I want to spend time in? If you’re having a good time, chat up the servers or owners. Starting a business is full of challenges—the rules and regulations alone will make your eyes bleed—and owners are worried about positive public reception; developing a connection with them can make you more invested in their success.

THE BRIDGE WEEKLY

SIGN UP FOR BROOKLYN BUSINESS NEWS

And maybe one solution is this: Instead of ignoring this disconnect between owner and customer, try to remember that where you choose to spend your money, your time, your presence, doesn’t go into a silo. Rather, it contributes to Brooklyn’s ever-changing and actually quite finicky ecosystem. And if we want that ecosystem to flourish, well, you know the rest: you have to put your money where your mouth is.

Once You Go, Go Again

Repeat customers are crucial for small businesses, especially mom-and-pop ones that rely on regulars to stop by a few times a week, or even daily. One benefit? Becoming a regular can make you feel like a million bucks (which actually doesn’t stretch very far in Brooklyn anymore, but you know what I mean). Feeling comfortable and known in an establishment can create a sense of community in your neighborhood.

closed restaurants

A few blocks north of Sheila’s on Court Street, a sign tells customers that Cafe Pedlar has closed for renovations, but it hasn’t reopened (Photo by Steve Koepp)

Post About Your Visit

Snap a pic of that delicious pastry or perfect latte art and give a new coffee shop some free press. Rather than thinking of restaurants as providing a service–which they are, of course–consider the people involved, from the owners to the host, and how letting others know about your experience will help those people keep their jobs.

Tell Your Friends—and Strangers!

Everyone has a tuned-in friend who knows what’s opening, closing, or too hot to snag a seat. You, too, can develop this enviable social cachet by texting your friends after a stellar restaurant visit and telling them to give it a try. Word of mouth is the most powerful form of marketing. If I see someone standing on the sidewalk peering at the menu in the window of one of my favorite restaurants, I like to stop and say, “It’s great! You should get the burger!” (Apparently, my life’s passion is pushing good burgers on trusting strangers.)

A tiny comment could push someone to stop in, enjoy themselves, maybe become a regular. And then you’ll both avoid the sad fate of walking past storefronts papered with hand-scrawled signs with the depressing proclamation: “Thanks for the memories!”

Make It a Game

Speaking of burgers, one of the best food summers of my life was when my friend Jane and I decided to go on a “burger crawl.” We didn’t stuff ourselves with sirloin in a single day; but when it came time to catch up, we always sought out places with a stellar burger option, which not only made it easier to decide on lunch plans, but also drew us away from our typical haunts. Find an adventurous friend and tick off all those cuisines you’ve never tried.

And next time you feel like stopping by the convenient option, take a look around—what haven’t you tried? What can you try? What will you try? Your new favorite spot might be just around the corner.

Kara Cutruzzula is a writer living in Fort Greene. Her articles, essays, and plays can be found here.

  • Davy kins

    That’s all very well said. Issue is sales of the best retailers in our neighborhoods are down 20%+++ last 12-24 months and that’s not coming back. It’s all a function of e commerce convenience and high living costs. Take lower sales and combine it with rents that landlords assume they can get and we have zero store profits and 20% vacancies. It’s simple rents have to adjust down 20% at least. And marginal retailers have to get better or get out. That’s always been how retail works – the better ones figure it out. But when rents are 25-35% of every dollar a retailer makes that a recipe for disiaster.

    • Martha

      I went to Sheila’s several times and brought an out of town guest there, as well. Although I liked the food, especially the scones, it wasn’t enough to bring me back again and again. The setup wasn’t great. It didn’t feel quite right. And I was not alone in that observation. I also never saw handouts or social media about the place when it opened. It just appeared. It’s heartbreaking because one could see that the employees were eager and earnest. I wanted this place to succeed soooo badly.

      • deter03

        Agreed. They seemed like nice people and the food I had there was good but it was expensive and the menu options were just a little odd. I wanted so badly for them to offer an affordable lunch where I could pop in during the week and get a sandwich or something but it seemed like everything was like $18 and up. That said, that corner seems kind of doomed, nothing lasts in there.