Longtime restaurant may close
Owners of the Park City restaurant Chez Betty, Tom Bell and Jerry Garcia, have been trying to keep the boat above water for the past five years, but water is pouring over the rails now and it may be time to ditch ship, Bell said during an interview.
Doors were closed this past week to prepare for the approaching summer months, but according to Bell, he and his brother Garcia have run out of options to finance the restaurant, so business may remain closed – for good.
The restaurant, which has been occupying space at Copper Bottom Inn, just off of Park Avenue since 1991, was purchased by the Garcia/Bell duo in August of 1996 from Barbara and Michael Rapp.
"Jerry was one of the first cooks for the previous owners," Bell said. "We were just a couple of brothers that didn’t come from any kind of money background, in fact, we had to beg, borrow and steal to get the money to purchase the restaurant in the first place. Once we got the deal done, we were very driven to do the best job we could do. We’ve been here for a long time and I think we’ve become an icon in the Park City restaurant scene. It’s hard to believe we have paid $960,000 in rent over the years and have nothing to show for it."
According to Bell, the restaurant started experiencing business troubles, about five years ago, landing the well-known Park City restaurant in a financial hole.
Bell explained, the real crux of the problem started in 2008, when the economy started to crumble. The restaurant slowly began to come up short each year and with the help from a few dry winters, the financial problems began to snowball. Adding, the brothers fell into a routine of borrowing money and using it to expense the costs to carry out the next season. Profits from the prior season were used to pay back loans, a process that has taken its toll on the business partners.
"Last year I borrowed a substantial amount of money to finance this last season," Bell said. "It took all of the winter season profits to pay it back. With other debts not accounted for, our only chance for survival is to obtain an investor or some influx in cash, or we’re looking at the fact we won’t have any money left to make next payroll. In other words, we’re done without a miracle."
A succession of bad luck, has given the restaurant a run for its money so to speak. According to Bell, the economy is the number one reason for the restaurants current $100,000 deficit, but the number of new restaurants in the area has saturated the market and the number of consumers visiting hasn’t been able to keep up, adding to the restaurants difficulties.
"When we opened 16 years ago, there were 70 restaurants in the local area, stretching out to Kimball Junction, now, there are 180. Clearly the number of restaurant seats heavily outnumbers the amount of tourist or locals that can fill them. The amount of pie we all get anymore is pretty small," Bell said. "It wouldn’t be right to point fingers without acknowledging that we played a big part in our own demise too. We shouldn’t have stayed the same all these years."
In the past, when business was doing well, Bell claims the restaurant use to host 30 to 40 dinners a night during the busy summer and winter months, but now they are only serving up to 15 on a "full" night.
"I don’t attribute our current numbers to the fact that we’ve let things slip," Bell said. "Our audience isn’t as captivated as it once used to be, mostly because there’s a lot of competition and a lot of choices in town."
Closing the restaurant was a decision that came abruptly to the brothers, who have had the restaurant on the market for sale this past year. Plans to tear down the famous plate wall and replace it with a bar, was an idea for added revenue, while Chef Garcia was planning an overhaul of the menu.
"We don’t have anybody beating down the door to buy the restaurant, so our only option now is bankruptcy," Bell explained. "Unfortunately there is still some unpaid debt that is still outstanding. It’s not going to be pretty for me or my brother. Our loyal employees are all shaking in their boots."
Bell claims, he and his brother still have a few irons in the fire, but time is running low.
"We’ve really managed to maintain our reputation as one of the best restaurants (in Park City) over the years," Bell said. "We did that by using my brother’s culinary talents and hiring the most talented staff in in town. The hardest part for me, in closing down, is losing touch with all of those relationships we have built over the years. I’ve seen families come in here since the beginning and now their children are old enough to buy wine. Those people, the locals, are what make Chez Betty magic."
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Bill White shut down his restaurants in the spring when the pandemic hit. They’re back up and running, but the challenges brought on by COVID-19 remain: “[I]t seems we collectively are taking one step forward and two steps backwards.”