Weekend lunches can be busy at Creekside Taphouse, a bar and restaurant tucked away in East Asheville’s Haw Creek community. On a recent warm Sunday afternoon, the business was slammed with football fans hollering at the TV, families playing with their kids on the patio playground and a drawn-out volleyball match in the sandpit out back.
But co-owners Kim Murray and Anthony Dorage, restaurant industry veterans who took ownership of Creekside over a year ago after having been regular customers there, have encountered a problem that a lot of restaurateurs are grappling with: the dreaded lunchtime slump. “It costs us more to be open for lunch than we bring in,” says Murray. While weekends tend to draw sports fans, being located smack dab in the middle of a neighborhood has always made for thin crowds during weekday lunch shifts.
To address the issue, the pair have been considering a tactic a lot of area restaurants have resorted to lately — cutting lunch service during the week. “I’ve never been faced with this situation in my 30-plus years in the restaurant business, where I’ve had to make that kind of decision, and it’s a rough one,” Murray says. “But we need to make this decision because we’re going in the red, and we can’t continue to do that every day. I’m scared to pull the trigger.”
A number of popular local restaurants that once offered lunch, including Cucina 24, Gan Shan Station, Copper Crown and Table, ultimately stopped. So why the shaky trigger finger for Murray? “It’s the backlash,” she says. “We don’t know if we want to endure that.”
She notes that she and Dorage already “disturbed the apple cart” when they took over Creekside Taphouse and changed a few menu items and other things about the restaurant. It isn’t hard to ruffle the feathers of a regular, she notes, even if you are trying to change things for the better. “So to stir that up again, we’re apprehensive about that.”
“It was a really tough decision because we did have some incredibly loyal regulars,” says Kate Bannasch, co-owner and operator of Copper Crown, which ended its lunch service at the end of August. “I mean, people you’d see in there multiple times a week, people who would bring business associates, people from the VA, people who would order to-go from us from the dealerships down the road — to talk to them and face them and say we weren’t going to do this anymore. … We had a lady burst into tears, we got creamed on Facebook about it, all of it.”
The decision, says Bannasch, has made things better for the restaurant overall. And while the immediate resistance — especially on social media — gave her pause, she was also impressed by the number of regulars who rushed to the restaurant’s defense. “If I go back and read the thread, there was probably more positive than negative, but the negative came out of the gate,” she says.
Given the ire of disgruntled lunch seekers, she wants it to be known that the choice wasn’t made lightly. Bannasch, who opened Copper Crown in 2015 with her husband, Adam, says it took the two of them a few months of deliberating and crunching the numbers to arrive at that decision. Closing for lunch meant lost shifts for workers and even letting some go.
“Especially if you are a place that is trying to create that local, farm-to-table thing, everything superfresh, that is so much work,” she says. “So when you have to keep your ticket prices low to drive that business, and when you are staffing it and those servers are walking with maybe $40 [in tips] … it starts to be like, why are we busting our butts for this?”
“We got pushback as well,” notes Gan Shan Station owner and chef Patrick O’Cain, who eliminated Gan Shan’s Charlotte Street location’s lunch service in June, although lunch sales were nearly a third of the restaurant’s sales. “It was nothing that was insurmountable, and it immediately improved my quality of life, the quality of life of my staff and the biggest issue that we have to deal with in this market, which is labor. So it has an immediate effect on the amount of people that we need.”
O’Cain notes that Asheville’s restaurant scene is at a high saturation point with many of its numerous venues designed to cater to lunchtime customers. He also observes that the growing plethora of businesses continues to stretch a labor pool that’s already spread thin and helps develop a very transient workforce. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 30% of Asheville’s population works in the service industry, and the Asheville Chamber of Commerce finds an annual unemployment rate of just 3%.
Many restaurants make much of their profit from sales of alcohol, which tends to have a more generous markup than the razor-thin margins on food. But O’Cain points out that alcohol sales at Gan Shan Station dropped by more than half during lunch service, accounting for just 12% of sales compared to the 25% the restaurant typically brings in during dinner service.
Bannasch agrees that alcohol sales are crucial in helping drive profits for restaurants. “When somebody comes in and gets a hamburger with a glass of water, and it’s an $8 ticket, that probably cost us $6.50 to put it on the table,” she says. “You do that math, and it’s like, ‘Wait a minute, this isn’t really adding up.’”
For Murray, the decision won’t be an easy one either way. She knows that in cutting lunch service, Creekside will likely have to eliminate at least two back-of-house positions and maybe a couple of front-of-house jobs as well from its staff of 28. “When we run the numbers, we are in the red most days for lunch. Because you have to be prepared; you have to have all the staff here in case it does get busy,” she explains, clearly stressed about the prospect. “We don’t just, on a whim, decide we’re going to quit things, you know?”