Poison Control 

Two takes on why certain promising locations can't sustain a restaurant.

We all know of a few locations that can't seem to sustain a restaurant business. Over a three-year period they'll go from Mexican to soup-and-salad to Indian, and nothing works. And yet it can't be simply location, location, location: Some of these restaurants are on the hottest, most high-traffic restaurant strips in the area. So I decided to ask two very different experts what might cause -- or resolve -- the problem of poisoned spaces.

One biggie: high rent. That's according to real-estate broker Rich Greenblatt, who specializes in restaurants. Greenblatt, of Allen Business Investments in San Ramon, is plenty familiar with the phenomenon, having brokered the sale of one particular location four times. "Restaurants work on certain margins, and if the rent's too high you can't always do the gross [sales] that you need to do," he says.

Another problem is access. "There are some sites where parking is bad or where getting in and out is a pain, so people don't go," he says. Market saturation, particularly for ethnic restaurants in primarily white neighborhoods, also poses difficulties for restaurateurs.

When he's brokering a high-turnover location, Greenblatt says he asks prospective buyers how they'll break the cycle. "The nature of the entrepreneurial spirit says, though, we've got a better mousetrap than the last guy," he says. "Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't." Many small-time owners, he adds, spend everything buying the business, leaving no cash cushion to advertise or sit it out until traffic picks up.

Then there's the spiritual aspect. Deborah Gee is a San Francisco-based feng shui practitioner who has consulted with a number of Bay Area restaurants, including some moving into previously unsuccessful locations. "Physical factors such as architectural design of the space and neighboring buildings, roads, freeways, and power lines can direct the ch'i [vital life force] of a business in a beneficial or a harmful way," she says. "You want to make sure you're in a location where the energy flow is balanced. If not, your customers are going to feel a sense of discomfort." For example, too much yin [passive] energy in the space can lead staff and customers to feel fatigued or ill; too much yang [active] energy can create anxiety or a lack of focus.

On a mundane level, balancing the ch'i means choosing appropriate colors, arranging the space and furnishings, and sometimes even rearranging the entrance to the restaurant. "On a metaphysical level there's something called 'predecessor ch'i,' " Gee adds. "If the previous business was successful, that life energy remains in the space. If there were financial problems or emotional conflicts, that energy also remains." She performs rituals to help clear away any negative energy.

Two very different approaches, no doubt, but both experts concur about one thing: It isn't always about the space. "The most critical question," Gee tells all her clients, "is 'Do you have a good chef?'"

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