An Open Letter to Restaurant Gwendolyn

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The Bill Miller's, no parking and commercial loading zone sign across from Restaurant Gwendolyn. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The Bill Miller's, no parking and commercial loading zone sign across from Restaurant Gwendolyn. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

To Michael Sohocki, owner of Reastaurant Gwendolyn:

When I first read your post on the Rivard Report talking about how you were forced to make the difficult business decision to close lunch service at your restaurant, my initial reaction was to run downtown and give you hug and a fist bump for speaking your mind and telling everyone “how it is.”

I loved how honest and raw your words were. Frankly, I’ve thought a lot about your post in the past 24 hours –probably too much – and the more I chew on it, the more I find issues with a few of your points.

Before I get to those, first let me say three things: 1) I applaud your use of a forum such as this to express your opinion – a win for free speech, 2) I’m ecstatic that someone with some money/investment in the game spoke up and shared their thoughts “from the inside” of downtown and 3) as I’m not in your position, I have no idea what it really feels like to be faced with a scenario such as yours. It sounds like a rough world down there.

So, as a person who likes looking at things from a different angle at times, I’ve read your post several times – like I said, I probably spent too much time on this.  I’m a lover of downtown San Antonio and a believer in the near-unlimited potential it possesses but I don’t currently work downtown and cannot afford to live down there either.

Restaurant Gwendolyn now open for dinner service only. Photo by Iris Dimmick via Instagram.

Restaurant Gwendolyn now open for dinner service only. Photo by Iris Dimmick via Instagram.

As a mid-30’s man with a wife and child, I can’t swing the kind of cash such a luxury requires. But I would be down there in a second if the economics were right. I do however live five minutes and four stop signs away from downtown San Antonio in the Deco District off I-10.

[Read More: Where I Live: Monticello Park/Deco District]

As an avid runner and lover of all things urban, I’m downtown in some shape, way or form at least three times a week.  My family currently lives in two times the square footage for about half the cost of what a going rate two-bedroom condo or apartment downtown is currently priced at.

I know many people continue to comment that if there was an affordable housing option downtown they would move down tomorrow. Heck, I’ve been one of those people. I’m no economist by any stretch of the imagination, but from the best of my knowledge, there doesn’t seem to be an abundance of vacancies at the current desired downtown housing options.  There seems to be an abundance of people willing to pay an exceptional amount of money for minimal square footage.  So, good for them, and good for the developers who are raking in the cash on these investments.

That being said, affordable housing options do exist downtown, such as The Soap Works Apartments (one-bedroom apartments starting at $370 per month) and the Robert E. Lee Apartments (one-bedroom apartments around $600 per month). But the main issue is that people want 1800 Broadway amenities at suburb prices.  Not going to happen.

But I digress.

To your main point, which is that not enough San Antonio residents frequent your establishment during lunch to make it cost effective to remain open during those hours. I do know that Bill Miller’s has a location directly across from your restaurant on East Pecan Street. From what I understand, they do very well during lunch. Could at least some of this be related to the fact that people are creatures of habit and they run to that which is familiar?  It’s why Starbucks does so well, right? You can get the same cup of coffee in Seattle as you can San Antonio or Sacramento.

On a smaller scale, Bill Miller’s falls in the same model when it comes to lunch in downtown San Antonio.  It may not be the best, but at least you know what you’re getting. That doesn’t mean that small businesses should just roll over and give up – they just face additional adversity against that which is familiar.  I know you’re not in the fast-food barbecue business – I’m not trying to directly compare you to Bill Miller’s – but if I work downtown I’m more than likely going to side with what I know is inexpensive chicken and fries over much of anything else that might cost more. Again, that’s just me. Though it was possible to get a $10 lunch at Gwendolyn, many passersby wouldn’t know it.

On to the parking issue.

This somehow seems to be a hot item with nearly everyone I talk to who lives in suburban San Antonio and doesn’t venture downtown except for their annual viewing of the Christmas lights on the River Walk in December.

Perhaps this is a byproduct of their suburban shopping mall culture and lover of big box parking lots.  The reality is that there’s a five-story city garage directly across the street, and several surface lots within a two block radius.  Often times when I head downtown I park in this exact area due to the abundance of parking and ease of getting around versus the congestion that can sometimes occur deep in the heart of the downtown district.  I don’t know how to convince locals that parking really isn’t as much of an issue as they think.

Parking garage on the corner of East Pecan Street and North St. Mary's Street. Photo by Iris Dimmick via Instagram.

Parking garage on the corner of East Pecan Street and North St. Mary’s Street. Photo by Iris Dimmick via Instagram.

I know perception is reality for most, so if they perceive that parking is a disaster in the area, they won’t go.  Unfortunately, too few people know this really isn’t the case.

You also mentioned the amount of tickets you’ve received from parking directly in front of your restaurant.  From what I recall, there is no legal parking zone directly in front of your establishment, so yes, why would you not expect a fine for parking illegally? It would be no different than me parking on San Pedro to run inside a Whataburger and grab some food, right?  From what I recall, there’s a VIA bus stop within a few feet of your front door. I imagine they can’t access their stop when someone is parked in their lane. Also, there’s a 30 minute loading zone directly across from your restaurant, is that not an option?

There are several other items you hinted at that I tend to agree with which could be dissected at length as well (location, adjacent vacant properties, residential vs. commercial development, readdressing of existing city ordinances, etc.), but that’s a story for another time.

Editor’s Note: Stay tuned to the Rivard Report for Director Robert Rivard’s column on the matter Sunday.

Again, I’m in no way trying to be a bully, as you’ve raised some very valid points. I enjoyed your post and can only imagine how frustrated you must be to see profits disappearing with empty seats.

It takes a boldness that I’m not sure I possess to be a small business owner, so when obstacles stand in your way, I imagine you would to do all you can to push through those barriers and see the joy of the other side.  Please keep fighting for downtown San Antonio, I believe it’ll be worth it. Hopefully sooner rather than later.


– Jeff Reininger

*Featured/top photo: Bill Miller’s, a tow-away zone and commercial loading zone across the street from Restaurant Gwendolyn. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

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26 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Restaurant Gwendolyn

  1. the audacity of some people to think that San Antonio is their own, they don’t have to share anything if don’t want to, worst is they are probably back by council members.

  2. Location, location, location.

    While I’m sorry to hear about the experience, I have trouble sympathizing too much with someone who locates a restaurant in a spot with a few empty buildings as neighbors and then bemoans the empty buildings and chalks it up to a lack of culture in San Antonio.

    The truth is that it’s not just an unsophisticated culture (there used to be a Quizno’s across the street that also closed).

    Yet within a few blocks, there are plenty of places with a thriving lunch business. For budget options, you can visit the packed Whataburger, but you can also pay more for a much better burger (among many other choices) at successful places like Zinc or Esquire.

    I’ll confess that I’ve never been to Gwendolyn. I love that it exists, and I think it is a really cool concept. I’m downtown a lot. Looking back, I guess my reasons for not going basically comes down to never thinking, “hmmm… Maybe I’ll go for some braised rabbit today from that place with no electric tools.”

    I’m sure there’s more to the lunch menu than that, but that is what has been written about and celebrated, so that’s what I know of the place.

    If there have been other marketing efforts to entice downtown types like me, I guess I’ve just missed it. (If there hasn’t actually been any marketing to the nearby office towers, that’s another problem.)

    The restaurant business is incredibly fickle. I applaud Michael for breaking new ground with the restaurant, and hope he continues to be inventive to find the right mix of things that will be successful.

    • Yup! Location does matter but cost is another issue as well. This guy, Mike, needs to focus on what he’s good at, being a chef. Also, he should just move the restaurant to broadway or the medical center because the downtown demographic isn’t going to change for some time.

  3. Thank you for writing this!! I, too, have been reviewing the original ‘rant’ entirely too much and believe their could, just possibly, have been some self-induced factors that are at issue. The parking issue you addressed quite eloquently. The vacant VS occupied buildings in the area issue? When the location was chosen for the restaurant, I am sure price was part of the choice. Adjacent vacancy rates affect price/sqft. One can not blame lack of customers if you choose to open your business in a less expensive location where there are few people inhabiting the area. (I am talking about the roll out of bed, throw on your flip-flops and run down for a sandwich clientele.) I can appreciate the frustration of the restaurant owner but not where he is placing the blame. If you build it, they will come works in the movies….not so much in the real world. If you want people to frequent your restaurant, you need to be in front of/ in the middle of the people. The rent might be a tad more, but, hey…you get what you pay for.

  4. Jeff who is to say that the Bill Miller location makes money? Also they have jank hours and are not open at night. They are part of a multi million if not multi billion dollar company, they have room to experiment and have a loss leader.

    Plus BM is not organic, not locally grown, it is the antithesis of what Gwendolyn represents. BM is garbage compared to Gwendolyn. To a foodie it is an offensive comparison.

    I am not a foodie. But it would be like comparing Jim’s to Kerby Lane in Austin, come on!

    Who let this article through?

  5. My husband made almost these exact same comments! :). But cool no matter what. We’re all talking about loving and living downtown and making it work. That’s what’s important. 🙂

  6. The reader obviously missed the point of why it needs to be easier to do all of these things. Also the housing options mentioned are not market rate. You have to qualify under low income status to rent those. #fail #getyourfactsstraight #cityontherise #getupstandup #ilovethedecodistrict

  7. Valid points. A huge problem in this city is getting lifelong residents downtown and out of their comfort zone. Start taking chances and support local businesses!

  8. Geez throw Michael under the bus why don’t you. It’s not about ranting if more businesses are to open up they can’t be sitting there all day waiting for dinner, even if the money is there. Businesses have to grow every year in order to survive, if they don’t they’ll start shrinking. Being competitive and having an edge is important, no one wants to tell suburbanites used to parking at the restaurant to pay $5-$10 to park. I’m not worried about LaZ parking being competitive it’s an industry that gets more for special events and benefits from variable pricing. Restaurants don’t print money like parking they have to deal with bad reviews (from bad customers), maintaining a public restroom for the city, giving water to the homeless (for the city), and make money on their food. I want to ask how many times the owner of LAZ, Central parking, Ace, or the city greeted you with a smile and asked how your parking was today. If you have an electric vehicle the city puts the charging station at the top floor when your the one keeping the air clean. LAZ has a broken credit card terminal, and doesn’t give change for large bills. And the $2 lots and cheap city parking are full by lunchtime there only like 5 on a street. Downtown Tuesdays are $10 by the Majestic during shows, and no you can’t find out ahead of time the office closes at 4:30pm. I usually pay $2-$7 in Austin, and I don’t have to hunt. Michael can do a lot better with robust marketing and aggressive online campaigns, but it will be despite the unfriendliness.

  9. I splurged and treated a friend and myself to the full dinner w wine pairings at Gwendolyn last year. It was an incredible experience. Every molecule in every morsel seemed intentional, inspired, wondrous. Hope to go there again sometime.
    Re parking tickets: Michael, I think if you had “Restaurant Gwendolyn” painted on the doors of your car/truck, you would qualify as a commercial vehicle and could park in loading zones for 30 mins.
    Re lunch closing: It seems to me that RG would be appealing for downtown business lunches. Why weren’t business folks going there? Wouldn’t that be a great place to take an out-of-town client/business contact for lunch?
    Re Bill Miller, Whataburger, Quiznos, etc.: I don’t understand how those places could be considered alternatives to R. Gwendolyn.

  10. I think an important point that was mentioned in passing was the vacancy rate in neighboring buildings. Yes, there are some empty ones, but there is also >1.6 million square feet of class A office space within a 2 block radius. Sure those are not 100% occupied, but even if they were, that is only part of the story.

    I think what needs to be brought up is the lack of diversity in types of buildings. Sure there is a lot of occupied space in the vicinity, but other than getting to/from work, why else would anyone venture up N. St. Mary’s after 5pm? The first issue is the lack of mixed uses within the buildings. Like I said, people get there, park in a garage, walk to their office, leave their office, get in their car, and leave… all possible without ever setting foot on a downtown sidewalk. So why would more office workers be the solution? Sure it would help, but right now, it seems that there is too much office space (and parking garages), and not enough of anything else.

    There needs to be a reason for people to walk from building to building, block to block. But there also needs to be randomness on the street, and this is produced when there are many different people doing many different things. I don’t mean many 8-5ers, I mean the student, the guy spending the day in his neighborhood on his day off, the second shift worker killing time; many different types of people in different situations doing different things. Those people just don’t magically show up.

  11. Yup! There is no excuse. Michael should think about hiring a General Manager with experience implementing business strategies. He can do that or hire a consultant.

    I get the point. The Decade of Downtown started in 2009. We should have made lots of progress in 4 years but we haven’t. Where is the effort? The Decade isn’t over yet. 2020 is still years away.

    Let this be a lesson for you – This is not the end of the world. This is the beginning of an new era in San Antonio.

  12. Good points.

    1. The people who are likely to have lunch there are downtown workers, and therefore parking should be a non-issue because they’re already downtown. People working in the burbs aren’t going to drive downtown for lunch, free parking or not.

    My take: Parking, shmarking. I can’t believe people complain about parking in an urban center. Get out of your car and walk. This is what being urban is all about – not being dependent upon your vehicle. That said, in another city I lived, there was 90 minute free parking in all city lots. This meant that people just around for lunch or shopping *could* park for free. We need to consider that.

    2. Housing. At the risk of sounding like an old geezer, this is a city. Cheaper than most urban centers, but yes, it costs a lot to live in a highly desirable location. You’re not going to find low rents in ANY urban center that are not rent-controlled or in scary places to live. The expectation that everyone deserves to live in a brand new condo/apartment within walking distance of amenities for less than $1000 is ridiculous for any urban center, even in our relatively low COL city. When I was a “young professional” (as opposed to the oldster I am now), I lived in a shared apartment, far outside the main strip (not San Antonio) because that’s what I could afford. It never occurred to me that the city I lived in owed it to me to provide cheap housing in a brand new place next to the city center.

    I *do* live near downtown now (Southtown). I moved here went it was still ghetto and people were afraid to be here. In my mid-30s, with my husband, we bought a run-down house that most would have torn down, and slowly, very slowly, are fixing it based on our budget (we both work in non-profit). Those same people who said I was crazy to buy here in the early ’00s are now complaining they can’t find a cheap enough place to rent/buy.

    Good socialist that I am, I believe in the right of all to shelter – affordable housing is important, but unless we want to turn the city center into communist era Moscow, with blocks of cheaply built, low amenity apartment blocks, we must also accept what the market offers. It’s important to provide housing to those who don’t earn enough to live anywhere, but to the 25 yr old who wants be close to the bars and clubs and fancy restaurants and wants to live without a roommate, well, no.

  13. I think it has to do with perspective. San Antonio is about sprawl while we are the 7th most populous city we are only 25th by density. I think the chef from Gwendolyn is making an important point. Why is San Antonio like this? Why is there little support or effort to grow city center? New developments are on broadway but downtown remains for tourists and conventioneers. The lack of even a real grocery store makes that pretty clear.

  14. Gwendolyn is not at all comparable to Bill Miller in the culinary world. But if adoring reviews were customers we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

    In the real world, some attorney in the building next door has to make a decision between a bowl of lentil soup at Gwendolyn and and a Bill Miller Salad de-lite or a prepackaged turkey sandwich at the cafe in the building that he will probably eat at his desk while trying to get in another billable hour.

    Some days Gwendolyn will win, but even the customer that eats lunch at Gwendolyn every week eats somewhere else for the other 4 workdays.

  15. Great rebuttal. I am thankful for the Rivard Report and the dialouge it facilitates. One of the things that I love the very most about San Antonio is the incredible number of people who are passionately engaged in the future of the city. It’s a good problem to have! Well written, respectful, and a nice complement to Michael’s first hand perspective.

  16. Also…some of the advice & observations come from people living & working downtown. Trust me, I’ve seen many food spots come & go. Also…I don’t think that corner is a ” terrible” or unsafe spot. I’ve walked or bussed to and from that corner often over 20 years.

  17. I enjoyed both original article, and this response. It’s great to be at a point in San Antonio where people are interested in having a discussion about downtown. As a lifetime San Antonian, I think I can pretty accurately say that twenty years ago, no one was interested. The heart of San Antonio was running full tilt towards 1604 and Stone Oak, but now it’s crawling back to the city center. It’s slow, but still so exciting to see people pushing for that and having a discourse about it. Good job, Michael and Jeff.

  18. Soap Works Apartments?!? Are you seriously suggesting that as a viable living arrangement? You obviously have not driven by there at 11pm. With gang bangers walking past single mothers pushing baby strollers, it is a completely unacceptable alternative for a living environment. Would you have suggested a cozy walk up in Bed-Sty during the 80’s? You have several valid points, but honestly I laughed out loud the second I got to Soap Works.

    One other (slightly major) point that neither you nor the owner of Gwendolyn mentioned is the bus station right around the corner. My husband worked at Auditorium Circle for several years and would go out of his way to avoid that area. Either a pimp was selling a teenage girl, or a dealer was pushing something. The location is scary with completely inadequate bike patrols.

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