On the Water: Dining shortage

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Capt. John King

It is a frequent California headline; “Housing Shortage Causing Rents to Rise.”

We too have a long history of struggling to provide enough affordable housing for the many folks who are in Avalon to serve visitors to Avalon.

But, we may have a new headline this year as a result of some major restaurant closures:

“Dining Shortage in Avalon Reduces Island’s Appeal.”

We have never been known as a “Foodie” destination, so a visitor’s dining experience is rarely listed as one of the top ten reasons for visiting Avalon. However, once they are here, they want to eat and drink.

Visitors love to review restaurants as if they had the palate of a Gordon Ramsey. The importance of their eating experience can be seen in the number of Trip Advisor and Yelp reviews that can be found on line.

We have lost about 500 dining seats for the coming season. Ristorante Villa Portofino has closed its doors, Mr. Ning’s is gone, CC Gallagher is no longer in business, the Casino Dock Café did not come on line and I understand that “The M” will be focusing more on private parties and doing less public dining events. That is a lot of seats missing in a year when more mouths will want to be fed.

I am concerned that we are at risk of experiencing a big dip in such ratings this coming season.

Last year was a banner year with more than a million visitors coming to Avalon. The economy still seems to be rolling along, so I would predict that we will break last year’s record this season.

It would not surprise me to see 1.2 million visitors come through our gates this year, and most of those will be visiting during the 86 days that make up the summer months between May 25 and Aug. 19.

Where are they going to eat?

I cannot hope to provide an accurate estimate, but for the sake of the argument let’s play with some numbers. Let’s take a look at July, our busiest month.

Last July the Express and Flyer brought 110,000 people over, another 10,000 came by their own boat, 3,000 more got here by helicopter and another 2,000 flew in on their own airplane. So at least 125,000 visitors got here in July 2017, not counting cruise ship arrivals.

It would not be outlandish to say that as many as 5,000 visitors might line up for a Saturday night dinner this July. With about 1,500 seats in 14 restaurants open to serve them in town, it is going to require 3.4 perfect turns at each location to feed them all. Not a very likely scenario.

It would require each location to open at 6 and fill all the seats, then turnover the entire restaurant at 7:30 p.m., then again at 9: p.m., and then finish the night with one last turn of stragglers.

If you want to eat at one of the top five restaurants in town, you will have to be very lucky or willing to eat earlier or later than might be usual.

Ask yourself, how long are you willing to wait for a table? And, since the restaurants will likely be filled to capacity, how long will you be willing to wait for your meal to arrive?

The answer is that you may not have much choice. If you want to have a nice dinner out, you better get in early, really early.

I am hopeful that every restaurateur is aware of this and making plans. But how much can they do? Open sooner? Stay open later? Simplify their menu? Allow pre-orders? Set up a lottery? Such tactics will help ease the glut, however I think we need to do more.

I talked with Jim Luttjohann of the Chamber of Commerce. He is working to set up a roundtable discussion with all the operators to consider strategies. Additionally, such a meeting will be important in managing the message.

The news will be out and will travel fast. Trust me Louis Sahagan of the LA Times will sniff out this story and we should be prepared to illustrate our concern and ideas for mitigating the problem so that his article includes both perspectives.

Maybe now is the time for the restaurants to go back to the City Council and ask for an emergency approval of outdoor seating as a test run this year so that we can add some seats.

It might not be a bad idea for the city to allow servers to lay out blankets and deliver picnic style meals to diners on the beaches. These are usually open areas in the evening.

Is it feasible to fast track some permits for the now empty restaurants to encourage new owners to get in early with some kind of limited offering?

Maybe we should consider adding Uber Eats in town as a food delivery service. I am sure Eric would be all over this opportunity.

Boats are another option. Catallac runs Happy Hour Tours and Cocktail Cruises for up to 49 passengers on summer evenings. If a restaurant or two is looking to sell 20 or so ‘grab n go’ meals before 5pm, we should talk.

Capt. John runs Afishinados Charters and Catallac Tours – john@afishinados.com – 888-613-7770

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