Change continues in downtown Stamford restaurant scene
The view from the front window of Fiesta on Main looks much different than it did just 14 months ago when the restaurant opened.
During that span, the Peruvian eatery, at 249 Main St., has seen two next-door neighbors depart and several others around the adjacent Columbus Park close their doors.
The turnover reflects an ongoing trend in the downtown Stamford dining sector: Restaurants that may last only a few months move out, but others swoop in to fill many of the vacancies. The reasons vary for the closings, but restaurateurs cite the difficulty of creating enduring businesses and the need to keep growing a customer base in the city center.
“It’s a very challenging thing, when you have a restaurant,” Fiesta co-owner Victor Mathieu said in an interview. “You really need to find a way to stand out and reach an audience that you haven’t reached before.”
The list of downtown closings in the first three months of 2018 includes Layla’s Falafel at 245 Main St., Aria Restaurant at 1033 Washington Blvd., and Aguapanelas at 84 W. Park Place.
Before it shuttered, Aria had grappled with the disruption of construction of the adjacent Vela on the Park apartment building. Several incidents involving debris falling from the tower onto the restaurant’s roof — no one was hurt — had deterred customers, Aria owner Stefano Staiano told Hearst Connecticut Media last year.
Staiano was not available to comment for this article.
Aguapanelas had faced issues with the city’s health department, with the agency posting a closing notice in the front door before the restaurant shut down for good several weeks ago.
A message left for Aguapanelas’ ownership was not returned.
Since the beginning of 2017, the downtown has seen a number of other closings, including Bar BQ, Mason/Dixon Smokehouse, The Fez, McFadden’s, Napa & Co., Viceroy Publik House and Wayne Steakhouse.
Mason/Dixon, Viceroy and Wayne each lasted only a few months.
“I have been in this job for 25 years, and I’ve seen so many restaurants come and go,” said Sandy Goldstein, president of the Stamford Downtown Special Services District. “The very strong ones that make it are the ones that are able to garner a very stable following.”
Fiesta is one of the restaurants that has built a solid customer base. It opened in its current location in February 2017, after previously operating a couple of blocks away at 83 Atlantic St.
“Restaurants really live or die in that first year,” Mathieu said. “You’re taking on a lot of debt, trying to advertise and get new customers. But there’s really no way for customers to get to know you other than testing and trying it out. We were fortunate to have a brand that people knew and were familiar with.”
A two-block radius around Columbus Park now includes several vacancies where restaurants formerly operated.
Rent prices are not driving the churn, said Cory Gubner, president and CEO of Rhys, a Stamford-based commercial real estate firm. Rates for downtown restaurants are still generally running about 20 percent below their 2007 peak, although they have risen by about 20 percent in the past five years, according to Rhys data.
Some downtown properties that could accommodate restaurants are asking for between $45 and $55 per square foot on an annual basis.
“I think what you’re seeing is a very natural turnover,” Gubner said. “I can’t remember a year when there wasn’t a handful or more of restaurants turning over in Stamford. I don’t view early 2018 as different from any other time. Restaurants close, and restaurants open. It’s still a very desirable city.”
The closings have not tamped down newcomers’ optimism about the downtown. Among the recent arrivals, Roasted Sandwich Co. opened in February at 148 Bedford St.
“We knew we wanted to expand, so we always kept our eye on Stamford,” Roasted co-owner Bill Hall said in an interview last month.
A few doors down from Fiesta, La Perle, an American-Caribbean restaurant, plans to open later this spring at 15 Bank St.
Next door to Fiesta, painted signage for a Factory Bar & Grill has been displayed on the facade of the building at 261 Main St., the former site of McFadden’s, for several months. The establishment has not yet opened.
Also next door to Fiesta, a New Haven-style pizzeria, Teena’s, has posted a sign in the window of the former Layla’s storefront at 245 Main.
“We always look forward to really good restaurants, that are different, being our neighbors,” Mathieu said. “If a street has 10 good restaurants, you might not know which restaurant you’re going to, but you know which street you’ll go to.”
At 300 Atlantic St., next to Bobby V’s Sports Restaurant & Bar, a California Tortilla establishment is set to open next month.
At 227 Summer St., the former site of the Moroccan restaurant The Fez, Kano Noodle Bar is also eyeing a spring debut. In the next block on Summer Street, Bull Pan Korean BBQ is nearing its opening date.
While thousands of people have moved into the array of downtown apartment buildings constructed in the past decade, and thousands more work in office buildings, some restaurateurs think an even larger customer base would be needed to sustain the dozens of restaurants in the city center.
Recent corporate arrivals such as Henkel, which relocated several hundred employees last year to its new North American consumer-goods headquarters at 200 Elm St., and residents of the new Atlantic Station and Vela apartment towers should spur more demand, said Michael Marchetti, co-owner of Columbus Park Trattoria, at 205 Main St., and president of the Stamford Tables downtown restaurant association.
“We have a great, diverse selection of restaurants now, so that’s not a problem,” Marchetti said. “The biggest issue we all see in the future for our restaurants is attracting more people — and we could do that by having more people living and working downtown. If we were able to increase the downtown population even by 5 percent, that would make a big difference.”
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