Friday, July 09, 2010

A Café in the Woods

One of oft touted features of the Columbia Associations redevelopment plan for Symphony Woods is a café. Planners envision this as way to draw people into the park.

Curiously, no one has mentioned who exactly is going to operate this café?

I sure hope it isn’t CA. Operating a restaurant is well outside their core competencies and we’ve already seen what happens when they do that.

Also, how big is this café?

Will it have a liquor license?

The bottom line is that the proposed café should stay proposed until CA finds an operator. It is never wise to build a restaurant and then try and find someone to operate it. That is a recipe for failure. Even if they can find someone to pre lease the space and then build it to their specifications there is still about a 25% chance that the first operator will fail in the first year.

The best way to assure that a café will succeed is to find an established operator with a solid track record. I’ve worked with a few of these including the initial operator of the Lakeside café in Columbia Town Center, Mike Lentz. Mike eventually sold the business to Michael So and subsequently moved to North Carolina.

What I’ve learned is that a good operator is extremely cautious in selecting a new location. For example, in the original lease for Lakeside we successfully negotiated with the landlord to not put a café in any of the other existing buildings they owned in Town Center. We also negotiated the right to apply for a liquor license at some point in the future.

Cafés look nice on paper in pretty architectural renderings showing people enjoying a leisurely day in the park but the reality is that the food service business is a tough business where only the tough succeed.

Despite claims by Liz Bobo to the contrary, this Symphony Woods project is far from “shovel ready”.
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