Lessons Learned from Lüke's Closing

I take no pleasure in announcing restaurant closings. It can be awkward noting when eateries fold. It's something I've struggled with for a minute. On one end, logical Jessica knows she's writing about one of the riskiest businesses in which anyone could invest their money and time. On the other, this is someone's livelihood. And closing a restaurant is never easy, regardless of whether it's a multi-million dollar operation led by a celebrity chef or a mom-and-pop place that decided to call it a day after many years in business.

When I started hearing whispers of Lüke's closing late last week, I was actually quite shocked. Here was one of the first major restaurant experiences I encountered as a young food writer fresh out of college. I was floored by the choreography and skill needed to open something like Lüke. I'd rank it up there with early visits to The Monterey (QEPD) and any time I'm around Bruce Auden, for that matter. Surely, a restaurant of Lüke's size, with a stellar location on the Riverwalk (when does anything ever close on the Riverwalk!?) and part of John Besh's restaurant empire couldn't fail. Could it?

Though the reason for its shuttering has yet to be disclosed, we do know that the last time anyone will be able to enjoy oysters on the half-shell along the Riverwalk while sipping a French 75 will come on February 28, or Fat Tuesday. We know Lüke was in business for six years. We know it had a jaw-dropping review last fall that outlined some recent problems with the eatery. We know its executive chef bowed out not long after.

We also know the impact Lüke had on the city based on alumni who are now scattered around San Antonio, all pursuing bigger, better things. Opening chef Steven McHugh earned a second James Beard Award semi-finalist nod this year; early kitchen staff member Luis Colon opened Folc, Park Social and most recently Bexar Pub and is also known as the creator of Texas Monthly's Best Burger in the state as of last year; Diego Galicia, along with business partner Rico Torres, is busy taking diners through different regions of Mexico with gastronomic flair, 45 days at a time inside Mixtli; Winnie Mak, went on to manage Arcade Midtown Kitchen and currently manages The Brass Tap at The Rim; Jesse Torres, who completed an externship through the Culinary Institute of America-San Antonio was part of the Mixtli team, opened Mezcaleria Mixtli, joined Esquire Tavern and is now managing newly reopened El Mirador.

And while it would be fair to speculate the E-N's review had something to do with the closing, it might also be putting too much weight on a single reviewer's opinion. These days, there's a lot more at play when it comes to keeping a restaurant afloat, let alone making it thrive. Developing a strong concept, finding the right managers, designing an eye-pleasing logo, marketing and finding an audience, hosting "media" dinners and hoping pic-happy Instagrammers enjoy their freebies, designing a menu, working with an architect, waiting on permits, establishing an online presence, opening the doors, keeping the lights on, getting butts in seats day after day — all of that only seems to skim the surface of what it takes to own a restaurant in 2017.

So when a bad review does come along, how are restaurant owners, chefs, staff members to react?

For some, like chef Jason Dady who "has received plenty of bad reviews" in his 16-year-residency in San Antonio, scathing reviews give you perspective.

"If you believe the good reviews, you have to believe the bad ones, too," he says. For Dady, owner of Tre Enoteca, Tre Trattoria, Shuck Shack, Two Bros. BBQ and Market, and The Bin, a crappy newspaper review is no different than a Yelp review. "Whenever that happens I tell my staff to go to Yelp. Fifty percent of the people will say it's the best experience they've ever had, and the other 50 will say you're the biggest piece of ...," he trails off.

The news of Lüke's closing "blindsided" Dady, who himself had to close Umai Mi after the eatery failed to land with local diners and received mixed reviews.

To Stefan Bowers, executive chef at Feast, Rebelle and the upcoming Battalion, Lüke's closing reinforces his "customer comes first" mantra. "We have a Spongebob quote in the kitchen that says, 'We will not deny the most ridiculous request'," Bowers says with a chuckle. That might mean 14 different ramekins when someone asks for a burger with everything on the side.

Though Bowers doesn't look at Yelp reviews (he prefers Trip Advisor), he does hear from them occasionally. "It's always disappointing. If you have 200 guests, you can't always bat 1,000," Bowers says.

That's because making a restaurant run smoothly isn't easy. As diners, we don't know when someone's having an off-night, when people have called out sick, when there are new cooks on the line or when finding staff willing to work downtown and pay for their own parking is downright impossible.

One way Feast and Rebelle earn great ratings might have something to do with owner Andrew Goodman's constant presence at most of his eateries. As a diner first, Bowers says Goodman is a customer of his own restaurant. Goodman is keen to point out portion sizes and value and small idiosyncrasies that go into running both back and front of the house — before guests have a chance to point them out on Yelp.

At El Mirador, general manager Jesse Torres says negative reviews are eye-opening. "It makes you realize that you can have someone like Besh, have a great location, have lots going on for you, and still fall short in execution," Torres says.

Torres has to make sure the beloved El Mirador, which reopened under new ownership last December with a sleek new makeover that includes artwork by Cruz Ortiz, maintains that hard-earned favor.

"It's about service and meeting expectations, especially with our restaurant when people have a notion of what El Mirador is for better or worse," Torres says. "We have to make sure the service and our food and drinks are top-notch every time."

As Torres puts it, one negative review, however harsh it might be, doesn't sink a restaurant. Dining's de jour popularity, and the rapid evolution of San Antonio's restaurant scene, means consumers might be even more aware of closings now. "Lüke is a big one, maybe the biggest restaurant to fall since food scene has built up to what it is, won’t be the last. There's definitely a lot to learn."

For former executive chef John Russ, who left Lüke in late November and is working on an undisclosed solo project with wife Elise Russ, the lessons are plenty.

"We believe that being a chef in today's world is much more than it used to be. A successful chef has ties to his community, takes care of her staff, provides hospitality and care for their guests, fulfills financial obligations, creates opportunities for the future ... and the list goes on," he said via email. "That's a lot. Sometimes we fail, but getting up, working diligently, embracing and learning from the successes and failures of each day is an absolute. Taking care of those around us and creating a better path are our primary focuses and the greatest rewards of all."
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