The belly dancer is gone.
These seem to be particularly tough times for a number of restaurants in the Birmingham
In just the past week or two, several places we know of have shut their doors. Some were locally run, while others were part of national chains.
One of the most recent to vanish—Ali Baba in Hoover—had been a favorite for Colleen and me for almost three years.
Competition is fierce. When Five Guys Burgers and Fries opened in Riverchase, it
wasn’t long until Harry’s Place, a long time icon known for its hamburgers and malts,
shut its doors.
In Alabaster, the Hokkaido Buffet shut down only a couple of weeks ago, and now
Cold Stone Creamery is following suit. Other Hoover casualties include Cafe Luigi and Fish Lips Seafood and Grill.
Earlier this year, at least two Ruby Tuesdays in the Birmingham area closed, including the
store in Vestavia. These were among more than two dozen Ruby Tuesday stores closed
across the country.
O’Charleys restaurants in Pelham and Birmingham were among 14 stores shut down
earlier in the year. Sweet Bones Alabama lasted about three years at the Summit before
closing in February.
It’s expensive and incredibly labor intensive to run a successful restaurant. I’ve known
restaurant owners who would give anything to work a 40 or even 50 hour week; for many,
that’s just fantasy.
What I have seen so many times is that you have to do so much more than serve good
food to survive in the restaurant industry.
You must have a sharp sense of business and innovation.
In the case of Ali Baba, while we were saddened to find the doors locked when we pulled
up with friends Saturday, we can’t say we were totally surprised. We had sensed for
some time that the restaurant’s days were likely numbered. While we enjoyed the food,
Ali Baba never seemed to have a large following, and numbers are what you must have
Ali Baba is a loss to the dining community because Persian restaurants that feature belly dancing are not exactly common place in Birmingham.
When we would ask Ali Baba’s owner how business was, we never got a very optimistic
report. We also saw a series of cuts during the year that started with the elimination
of a Sunday buffet. Not long after that, we showed up one Tuesday evening to find
the doors locked; the restaurant had picked that day as an additional day to be closed each week, effectively cutting off even more chances for revenue.
The restaurant also dropped its participation with restaurant.com, which the owner said cost him money instead of creating new customers. In Ali Baba’s case, I think the biggest factors leading to the restaurant’s demise seemed more outside of the kitchen. Marketing, exposure and innovation lacked. They seemed to always be looking at ways to cut, instead of trying new things.
In the case of Hokkaido, the restaurant started out on a high note as many places
do, serving fresh, well prepared food. But we noticed a decline during the past
few months, including one evening when steak, one of the main entree choices
at the grill, was not available. They served such a huge variety of food that it left
me wondering how well they could maintain such a large menu. The answer was forthcoming: During our last visit, the food did not seem as good.
In the food service industry, you only have to disappoint once to lose business.
Vestavia’s Pappas’ Grill has been another favorite, but it, too, has had to deal with
a tightening economy. The restaurant used to be open on Saturdays and Sundays,
but the owners trimmed back their hours earlier this summer, with the doors open
now only on weekdays. We’re hoping Pappas endures, because it offers some
of the best Greek food we’ve had anywhere.
The cost of simply keeping the doors open continues to go up, with this financial
pressure showing up on menus. At one Mexican restaurant we visit in Pelham, beef
fajitas—once in the $12 range—have shot up to above $15. As much as he likes the food, a friend of ours says he’s cutting back on his visits, lamenting that he can’t have lunch there any more without spending well over $10.
Fortunately, the Birmingham area remains blessed with a huge assortment of great restaurants. One of our favorites—The Bright Star in Bessemer—is still going strong. Any restaurant that has remained in business for over 100 years has to be doing something right.
Other locally owned restaurants—while having been around only a few years—are packing the customers in. At Alabaster’s Joe’s Italian, don’t be surprised if showing up for a Tuesday or Wednesday dinner still means waiting for a table.
Now in its fifth year, Shono’s Japanese Grill in Riverchase—another spot we hit regularly—is persevering.
We continue to discover wonderful new places appearing on the scene from time to time, too. On our first recent visit, we decided that Bistro V in Vestavia had scored a home run.
Despite the challenges, entrepreneurs still move forward. At Steak ‘n Shake, which made its Birmingham debut in Alabaster August 23rd, the newness hasn’t worn off. Don’t be surprised if you have to wait for a table even when visiting at what would seem like a non-peak time.
Across Highway 31, the nearby Dairy Queen re-opens under new management October 1st.
It’s a bold move to open a restaurant in this day and age. For the selfish sake of my culinary desires, I’m hoping more folks will try it, though.
We do like to eat!