Cervantes Magana, a wine specialist at Wine Steals' new East Village location, polishes bottles as the staff prepares for the evening crowd.
The last time Morgan Lynch and Koral King visited Hodad’s, the Ocean Beach burger restaurant, on a Saturday, the line was around the corner.
Near closing time on a recent Monday night, the line was a little shorter — but there was still a line nonetheless.
“Nothing like a good burger,” Lynch said.
Hodad’s was used to long lines during the weekend and the summer. But then the burger beach spot got national attention from the Food Network and CNN, and now the lines have become part of the Ocean Beach landscape.
Co-owner Michael Hardin sees those lines and sees room for growth. He’s planning a second location — Hodad’s Too — for downtown that is supposed to open this summer.
“We’re striking while the iron’s hot,” Hardin said. “We heard from local people how grateful they are that we’re doing well, but they can’t get in. This will give them another option.”
Hodad’s is just one of several local popular restaurants that, undaunted by the ongoing economic slump, are expanding. Wine Steals opened a new location in East Village last week. Pizza Port is putting the finishing touches on an Ocean Beach location set to open in April or May. And the owners of Urban Solace are looking to open a still unnamed restaurant in Encinitas this summer.
They have different reasons for expanding but their decisions demonstrate the benefits of expanding in a downturn — when the price for leasing or buying a new location can be just right.
“If you can expand, this is a great time to expand,” said Vince Marsaglia, Pizza Port co-owner. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many (places) up for lease, up for sale.”
The restaurant world certainly wasn’t immune in the recession. But after a few years of more local restaurant closings than openings, local restaurant consultant John Gordon said he’s seeing anecdotal evidence that this trend might be reversing. It helps too that there’s an abundance of commercial real estate property available now too.
In some areas of downtown, the average rent per square foot for restaurant space has dropped by about 50 percent since the height of the economy, said Mike Clark, a retail broker who specializes in restaurant real estate for Cassidy Turley BRE Commercial.
In East Village, Wine Steals co-owner Ken Mills and his staff have been busy making sure everything goes smoothly since the fourth Wine Steals opened last week alongside its new gastropub, Proper. There are reservations to schedule, staff to keep training on the computers and, yes, interviews to do.
“It’s a good time to grow if you have the ability to grow,” Mills said, who has other Wine Steals in Hillcrest, Point Loma and Cardiff. “It makes sense to expand when our model works. The economy’s not doing well but people still like to have a good time or get away from the economy for a night.”
Each community is different, he said. East Village gets busy later at night than, say, in Point Loma, which caught Mills a little by surprise on Sunday night. The kitchen had closed at 9 p.m. but a few groups of customers came in afterward in search of food. After that, Mills said he and his staff have decided to try keeping the kitchen open later and have a late happy hour on a trial basis.
Over in North Park, Urban Solace co-owner Scott Watkins said his restaurant has thrived as it has captured those people who still want to go out but not splurge at exclusive places.
“The first thing to go is going out when the disposable income isn’t there,” Watkins said. “We got our name out there before the market took a dive (and) our sales increased because people weren’t going to super expensive steak restaurants.”
The popular North Park eatery known for its comfort food opened in 2007, and Watkins said he and his business partner Matt Gordon had plans to expand when they were approached in late 2008 about opening a restaurant in Encinitas’ Pacific Station. It wasn’t the first time they’d been approached about expanding, but previously, the timing hadn’t been right financially and personally, Watkins said.
When they visited Encinitas, they were drawn to it for the same reasons they value North Park’s community, Watkins said.
“It has a small town feel,” Watkins said. “They like to support local businesses.”
The new restaurant won’t just be Urban Solace No. 2, and they hope to make the new restaurant unique enough so that customers will want to go to both, Watkins said.
Not far from Hodad’s in Ocean Beach, Pizza Port’s Marsaglia has been watching his newest incarnation of his popular brewpub come to life.
He has wanted to open a place in Ocean Beach for awhile now, he said, because he likes beach communities. When he finally found the place on Bacon Street and Santa Monica Avenue, it was run down and in need of a lot of repair.
After buying the property, Marsaglia said construction started three or four months ago and now Marsaglia’s looking to open in late April or early May. It will be the fourth Pizza Port, following others in Solana Beach, Carlsbad and San Clemente and a brewery in San Marcos.
“All the places we’re in are all places I like to hang out,” Marsaglia said. “We’re not really about ‘we need to expand to make money.’ Life’s too short to be stressed out.”
Back at Hodad’s, opportunity came knocking for Hardin about a year ago when the owner of a downtown building said he wanted to see a Hodad’s downtown. Hardin had decided against opening a second location in Pacific Beach more than a decade ago because he knew how much time he would have to spend away from his young children to establish the new restaurant, he said. Now that his kids are older, Hardin said it’s his turn.
He hopes to open by Hodad’s 41st anniversary this summer.
Correction: The original version of this story misspelled Michael Hardin’s name once. We regret the error.
Please contact Dagny Salas directly at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/dagnysalas. Know of other local restaurants that are expanding? Let us know in the comments.
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