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The Oak Hills restaurant dilemma — why it is what it is

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The restaurant business is risky.  Perfectly planned eateries are only as good as they perform after they open.  Seventeen percent of restaurants fail in the first year.  The competition is everywhere, and diners are picky.  In New York City, pre-pandemic, there were approximately 20,000 liquor licenses outstanding.  Add in take-out, coffee shops, food courts, etc., and that number doubles.  The same is abundantly evident in Norwalk.  Many operate with very little cash reserves, so when hard times hit, so does the attrition.

The challenge of making money is always present.  A full-service restaurant will run with a 30-40 percent food cost, around 15 percent labor, and 25-30 percent fixed costs, which includes rent, utilities, licensing, insurance, taxes, and dry goods.  That leaves a pretty slim margin to hope for, and that may erode pretty quickly as wholesale prices can be quite fluid. 

Many places don’t make any money on food at all.  A friend had a chain of sit-down Tex-Mex places in California.  After he sold out, he said he’d never made a dime on food because the competition dictated his low menu pricing, but when someone ordered a $12 margarita, everyone got paid!  However, if your food doesn’t deliver on quality and value, you won’t get enough guests in the door to order those cocktails.

And as we often see, there’s the issue of the misguided restaurateur.  How many readers have had the experience of their accountant, or doctor, or attorney gleefully telling you that they’re opening a restaurant?  Hospitality is a passion.  There are those who are born to serve, and those who are born to be served.  One either cares about a guest’s experience, and strives to make it all it can be, or one is just there to smile and seat you.  If you look at your restaurant as an ATM, there’s a good chance you’re not providing the best experience to your guests.

No less than a legend, Danny Meyer, told a story in one of his books about a young couple who dined at one of his places.  The server reported it was a first date that appeared to not be going well at all.  Mr. Meyer, on site that evening, instructed the server to offer dessert on the house.  Why?  He knew that when young lady told her friends how much of a flop the date was, she’d also be sure to mention that the restaurant was amazing!  “They were awesome and even bought us dessert!”  That, my friends, is hospitality.  It’s easy for someone who gets it, and not even on the radar of those who don’t.

Now, to the Oak Hills issue.  Where do we start?  How about that the physical space itself ignores the needs of what it would take to work approach success?  Why the pro shop is where it is, in lieu of a sit-down bar, escapes many.  The old pro shop was just fine.  Listen, golfers want a bar.  Over and out.  Golfers want a hot dog, and a beer at a bar.  OHP provides none of that.  Sterling Farms, Hubbard Heights, Richter Park, Ridgefield GC, all cater to golfers.  OHP does not.

And even if you chose to sit on the deck, on a nice day, and relax after your round, at best, your basic beer and a burger (sorry, no hot dog for you) is $23 before tax and tip.  No one wants to spend as much on refreshments as they did on the round of golf.

Catering private parties is a lifeline, but the current configuration makes that impossible unless they close the dining area for the party, and that leads to inconsistent public hours, and that leads to second-guessing whether to even think of OHP as a dining option.

So, considering all points noted, how much of this is the current footprint and operation getting right?  Not much at all.  Frankly, my last restaurant experience there was not great.  The burger was not done to order, the wait for a drink was around 20 minutes, and the music coming through the door was deafening.  When we asked if they could close the door nearest the musician, and leave the other open, the answer was, “No.”  Just, no.  (See notes on hospitality.)   What we were treated to was the sight of the manager (owner?) who couldn’t have been less aware that we were there.

Harkening back to my school days, OHP Grille would have been a great example of how not to run a restaurant.  The course itself is a gem, fun to play, at turns challenging and forgiving.  It deserves a much better 19th hole.

Steve Mann

Chapman Hyperlocal Media Board member

7 comments

John ONeill January 4, 2021 at 9:48 am

100% Right On…This is not rocket science. We can borrow a name from a terrific eatery in East Norwalk and go with a name like Knot Alexanders…Give the restaurant some flexibility. Maybe while antagonists are counting trees we can loosen strings to make this work.

stuart garrelick January 4, 2021 at 10:54 am

All true but how much of the problem has been the result of OHPA and neighbor dictated restrictions. I doubt the restaurant asked to have their sit down bar removed.
The dichotomy of being a beer and burger or hot dog stand for golfers during the day and a somewhat more gourmet dining experience with some entertainment provided at night is a daunting task and needs the full cooperation of all concerned to stand a chance of succeeding.

Advid Golfer January 4, 2021 at 1:24 pm

Quote from above “Perfectly planned eateries are only as good as they perform after they open. Seventeen percent of restaurants fail in the first year.” So why did the first restaurant Quattro Pazzi from 2005 through 2011 after a successful run leave? Here is why, because a few cheap loud golfers convinced the powers to be on the Authority that it was not catering to them “the golfers” (no cheap bar food and to many catered events). so low and behold the Authority kicks out Quattro Pazzi changes the building around putting the pro shop in the restaurant and now is left with no one to run it. You destroyed the building and the whole golf operation when you moved the pro shop in the restaurant. For 50 years the first tee, pro shop, cart barn all together worked beautifully but not now.
Until the Authority takes control of this place instead of listening to a few loud golfers not only on the restaurant issue but also the crazy memberships offered last year this place will always be mess. Memberships are for private clubs not a public facility. OHPA you need to do what is right for all golfers not the select few loud ones.

DeerMooo January 4, 2021 at 3:51 pm

“Where do we start?”

Historically, part of the problem has been that the same NoN commenters who have the weird anti-golf obsession; who have been endlessly cheering for the demise of the sport itself; who pretend the there aren’t other parks serving other specific interests/uses across the city; and who (falsely) imply that OHPA is some sort of exceptional city budget boondoggle – these people are in large part the same people who vehemently opposed exactly what you’ve suggested in your thoughtful letter.

> “golfers want a bar… Golfers want a hot dog, and a beer at a bar.”

Some might even recall that Paul Cantor once seemed to imply on this very website that it was only a matter of time before a drunk golfer killed an innocent child walking home from school:
https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/oak-hills-driving-range-dominates-norwalk-mayors-night-out/

But back to the topic. Why isn’t the facility centered around what every successful golf course restaurant offers: a sit-down bar with casual food? Back in the planning and early development, the people who know how to run a golf course were cornered by the people who hate golf courses (and want the city to 100% fund a less-trafficked park in their neighborhood/backyard, for their own selfish benefit).

To quote you once more: “Over and out.”

Tommy T. January 4, 2021 at 8:51 pm

Hi. Mr. Mann I can’t put it a better way on your letter. I been in this business for over 15years and I can’t believe that they charge $23.00 dollars for a hamburger. If I had a opportunity to open this place I would change a lot of things. Do you know who I can speak to regarding this opportunity. Thank you. Please contact me at 203 733 7860. Tommy

Bill Waters January 5, 2021 at 9:36 am

Spot on insight @Steve Mann –
As a former Chairman of the Oak Hills Park Authority I can assure you that the OHPA never intended for $23 burgers at the restaurant (which I cannot believe is true; might it include your beer, too?). What the problem is, is that the building is not (never was) configured to be the “pub-like” establishment that all golfers who play at Oak Hills would want. Because of city politics and noisy neighbors in the early 2000’s, the building was configured to be a catering hall and has basically operated as such ever since it opened.

The OHPA has been forced to contract with various restauranteurs over the years because not very many people were interested in the building, thus contracts have gone to inexperienced proprietors just to get a warm body in there and collect “some” rent. Rent has been the biggest issue in the lack of success for the restaurant building. Rent + utilities + insurance + supplies add up to over $10,000 per month. Who can afford that in the first 2 years of business, especially for a place that is off the beaten path and nowhere near any business district?

We successfully petitioned the Common Council in 2018 to remove the restriction on even having a physical bar in the building: see https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/norwalk-discusses-new-bar-in-oak-hills-restaurant/ . But, with no financial support from the city (Oak Hills gets no money from the city, it only pays down a loan to the city for the construction of the building) and not enough golf revenue to support the building, it is left up to any prospective restaurateur to build his own bar. That is something that would require a significant expenditure and, so far, the city has limited OHPA from offering long term leases to any new restaurant. Who would make that kind of investment in a short-term lease?

The building, itself, was built very poorly. It is only 15 years old and has septic, A/C and roof issues. It may be cheaper to just tear it down and begin again in a smaller, normal restaurant-sized building.

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