Chef Sohocki: I Still Believe in Downtown

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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.

When I originally wrote “Why I Closed Lunch at Restaurant Gwendolyn,” I hoped to prompt some thought and discussion. The response that followed on the Rivard Report and on social media astounded me. I hope these discussions can channel the passion about rebuilding downtown into action.

I’d like to clear up some misconceptions that seem to have arisen about my work and the struggles of owning a small business downtown. While dinner at Gwendolyn is a fine-dining experience,  I wanted customers to consider lunch more like a picnic, with bread baked in house and the same local and sustainable sourcing as dinner at accessible prices.

When my customers ordered a $7 sandwich or a $10 lunch combination of a soup, sandwich and tea, they supported the work of local farmers, ranchers and artisans, and choosing hand-crafted food over factory farms and assembly lines.

Across the street from my businesses sits a Bill Miller Bar-B-Q and its lunch service is packed, largely because it’s familiar and cheap. But it’s not a "restaurant," and its business model is completely different from mine.

Food is not made at any location of Bill Miller’s. There is a gigantic production facility — a factory, really — that smokes millions of pounds of beef, chicken and sausages, where beans are heated in great steam-jacketed swimming pools, where great mountains of potatoes and mayonnaise and boiled eggs are turned and flopped by the dumpster load. In the morning, white trucks take them to the different outlets that serve the fast food barbecue. The food is held above steam pans and beneath heat lamps until you walk in and it is scooped into Styrofoam trays for you by staff members who work hard but aren’t cooks.

Still, even the Bill Miller across the street is usually dead outside of the 30-minute lunchtime window. But they are built to thrive on a sudden rush. Their system is remarkably flexible; if one scooper quits, they’ll get another part-time scooper. There are also issues of class and social structure involved in this business model, but I’ll just say that the building across the street isn’t a restaurant; it’s an industrial cafeteria.

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.

Between Gwendolyn and Kimura, I have 20 employees, four broken refrigerators and an ailing 30-year-old grease trap. I also hold down my own pastry station at Gwendolyn, and often work as the dishwasher and the valet. I routinely work 72 hours each week and am grateful for the opportunity to do so.

Still, the extra challenges of owning a business in downtown San Antonio can wear down even the most passionate of my staff. We struggle to find parking. The Travis Garage is booked solid and we use surface lots, but if we stay longer than the 10 hours they have paid for (we can’t afford to pay for 24 hours), we find our cars getting towed.

Existing regulations may work fine for the large chains elsewhere on the River Walk, but they are out of proportion for a small business like me. When I tried to bring a little visibility to my restaurants, whether with a vinyl sign over the patio facing the river or an A-frame valet sign or making custom benches and potted Japanese maples to beautify my little corner, I am threatened with fines and litigation if I don’t take them down. We still don’t have a sign that says Kimura anywhere on the restaurant. It’s been eight months now.  We just don’t want to get arrested.

The point is, if you want to make downtown livable and manageable, businesses like mine need to have clear rules for doing business and supportive conditions that allow us to thrive.

I appreciate the insight of Regan Turner and Robert Rivard, and recognize that the changes we need in our downtown must be sweeping and bold.

I know from living in San Francisco that even in a lower- to middle-income area, you will see mixed occupancy. I’m no real estate developer or politician, but what San Francisco surely does have is the incentive for the development of thriving civilization.

In San Antonio, we have issues of property rights and municipal codes, low tax assessments, lack of property owner motivation, land speculation, stakeholders’ interest. (For the full description, please see “Ghost Buildings Haunt San Antonio’s ‘Decade of Downtown.”)

But what are the incentives? What are we, as a community, encouraging?

Hotels are doing well. Large multimillion dollar chain restaurants (McDonalds, Hard Rock Café) seem to be doing well. Powerful company headquarters (such as VisionWorks) seem to be doing well. Companies that thrive on tourism in that classic Fisherman’s Wharf kind of way seem to be doing well.

What tax incentives or other developmental incentives exist for small business owners, small would-be residential developers or small would-be grocery store owners? Who in the city can tell me how I can promote my business with a sign that won’t run afoul of regulations? How can I, and other small business owners, work with the city, existing business owners and the few residents of downtown to strengthen our livelihoods?

I opened my businesses because I believe in downtown as a home of fine dining, and I keep my doors open because customers support our mission of expertly preparing and serving local and sustainable food. Despite the issues of parking and visibility, Kimura is slowly gaining a steady following.

You water the plants you want to grow. If there is to be a healthy downtown, you must nurture the healthy growth of its parts.

*Featured/top image: Restaurant Gwendolyn now open for dinner service only. Photo by Iris Dimmick via Instagram.

Related Stories:

Thrive, Connect, Renew: What San Antonio Can Learn from Philly

Ghost Buildings Haunt San Antonio’s ‘Decade of Downtown’

An Open Letter to Restaurant Gwendolyn

Why I Closed Lunch at Restaurant Gwendolyn

Attacking Urban Decay: Take Back Neglected Property

11 thoughts on “Chef Sohocki: I Still Believe in Downtown

  1. Well said this conversation is healthy . Downtown is at a threshold for greater Success . Will there be room for the soulfulness and creatives to thrive ? In the meantime the free thinkers who are willing to follow their Vision’s must have support . Unity is a start with a healthy conversation ! Adelante !!!!

  2. Downtown as a whole is just extremely inflexible. There are so many hurdles that need to be passed before anything progressive can come to fruition. I think it serves its purpose at times to keep the aesthetics in context with the history and tradition, but it does slow down downtown development.

  3. It shouldn’t take four opinion pieces to say what’s obvious. But I’m glad it happened. We never had to think about the streets packed with shops but now that may be more than idea. I only hope the city can help to provide incubation for these shops as they have for larger power players in the past.

  4. I commend Chef Michael Sohocki for comparing and contrasting the socio-economic framework of running his local restaurants vs. industrial operations such as Bill Miller’s, Whataburger, etc. Most diners are not aware of the factors involved in supporting the genuine efforts of local farmers, ranchers, chefs, culinary students.
    It’s absurd that cultural incubators such as Kimura or Gwendolyn are grappling with arbitrary restrictions on a daily basis when it is institutions such as these in our inner city area that maintain an organic culture, which in turn creates civic pride for us as residents. As he stated in the article, “What are we, as a community, encouraging?” Now is the time to develop popular support, as a community, for new policies and incentives to allow the vision of Sohocki and others to thrive in the downtown setting.

  5. Is your sign for Kimura tied up at HDRC? The potted Japanese maples sound lovely. Something I really like about London is seeing the individual beauty and expression with gorgeous displays outside various business establishments of potted plants, suited for their environment. I’m thinking mostly of Chelsea and Hampstead areas, but can think of many others. I find the CoSA ‘canned’ plantings spotted around a bit stodgy and unimaginative. For example, potted flowers on light poles make no sense and create a harsh environment for the plant and for those we pay to water them. If you are being fined for pots of said maples, that’s a horrible use of taxpayer dollars to harass beauty over group-think. Hello CoSA, the 80’s called and they want their light pole plants back.

    Thank you for explaining further the cost issues of monthly parking for you and your employees, not just your customers on a daily basis. Back in the 80’s it was $65/month at the old Hyatt. None of us could have afforded that and thankfully our employer paid for it. I can only imagine what it costs now. We were hounded by the SAPD meter maids constantly. I was even pursued all the way down to King William from just up the street from Gwendolyn, after parking legally in a temporary loading zone, picking up pastries for a business meeting. It was kind of absurd to find the meter maid hot in pursuit in my rear view mirror. Talk about etj. We had no support at all when we needed even 5 minutes to load presentation material for the numerous restoration projects we were doing on many of what had been abandoned or underutilized buildings. Not even when we restored City Hall:). I understand why you feel beleaguered.

    Thank you for your commitment to real food and to furthering this discussion and for explaining the difference between ‘white truck food’ and what you are doing.

  6. Again, no mention of the neighboring Blanco Cafe or their ability to succeed as a lunchtime eatery over the past decades in the same downtown location that Chef Michael (and the Rivard Report) believes needs to be ‘re-built’ to be viable.

    Or the Greyhound buses loaded with hungry passengers arriving daily during lunchtime hours from Dallas, Houston, Laredo, Corpus Christi and further afield . . . just across the street, and helping to maintain the tradition of San Antonio as an arrival, travelers’ and mass transit city.

    Or the bike share program and expanded VIA services (PRIMO) providing additional alternatives to driving in and to our already insanely walkable urban downtown – with more than ample affordable public parking in reasonable and healthy walking / rolling distance.

    Certainly, downtown San Antonio has some management challenges (too much surface parking, not enough non-touristic / non-entertainment industry jobs, some broken sidewalks) – but failing as a lunchtime eatery in this particular location suggests other issues or missed opportunities.

    For example, Google Map-ping ‘Restaurant Gwendolyn’ yields the descriptor ‘Upscale American’ (‘fine dining’ in other search platforms) – which is like a dog-whistle to most visitors and San Antonians that they are not welcome. It also suggests an exclusive and cloistered vision for downtown that most people are not interested in supporting (picturing the Mayor lunching at Pico de Gallo and Kanye West at Mi Tierra, and not simply because of their Mexican food offerings).

    I’m all in favor of good-tasting, locally-sourced, cruelty-free, blah, blah, blah eats at reasonable to ‘fine’ prices – as are most people, and particularly if it is served in a welcoming, interesting, comfortable and inclusive environment (but no need for pajamas – San Antonio isn’t a dorm). This relates to San Antonio’s rich history as a truly public dining town, with strong ties to a diversity of regional food production (seafood from the coast by train, cattle drives, pecans, citrus from the valley, etc.), and connecting with – rather than rejecting – travelers and locals of all stripes and local habitus.

    In contrast, it sounds like Restaurant Gwendolyn from the start closed its doors to the most accessible lunchtime crowds (and what crowds – to be so lucky) and relations with neighboring businesses (which could help a new business with navigating parking, signage and other minor issues) – but blames the city, Bill Miller, the actual existing public, etc. for its business shortfalls.

    San Antonio could likely use a few more downtown lunchtime eateries offering a greater variety of prepared foods (‘healthy’, ‘sustainable’ and even ‘gourmet’ are highly subjective concepts) . . . but please hold the snobbery, victimhood, declarations of ‘blight’ and examples of cities with hyper-gentrification / -segregation when envisioning downtown San Antonio’s future and various commercial offerings.

  7. What Chef Mike says is the truth. There are deep, complex issues that face our downtown. Unfortunately, the corrupt politicians and their rich business interests make sure the River Walk, big names, and old money get all the pie. Supporting local, real food and honest hardworking locals in small businesses is the right thing to do.

    All of the haters will hate, and the opposing opinion articles will misrepresent and even bold-face lie about things like “cheap” downtown apartments that are really Section 8 subsidized. They’ll defend the city and point out all of these “ahhh haaas”, but they will miss the forest for the trees. Even an out of state Urban Planner and Designer friend of mine I spoke with commented on how terrible our downtown was planned, designed, and managed.

    • As an originally out-of-state (sometimes out-of-the-country) urban planner, I have to say downtown San Antonio is a gem in comparison with many U. S. and international cities and how they are managed – with no shortage currently of affordable housing within reasonable distance of downtown . . . including as a guy who found a $9k house less than a mile from the Museum stretch of the Riverwalk on the market in the last 12 months, with an eyeball on the below-the-radar apartment options currently available at Cattleman’s Square. The likely need for more non-tourism / entertainment industry (including restaurant) jobs aside, quality-of-life in San Antonio is quite high generally for the majority of residents – including as access to and enjoyment of various public amenities, resources and opportunities (including for entrepreneurship) are not nearly as limited based on income, race or class as they are in such hyper-gentrified and/or-segregated urban areas as present-day San Francisco or in such outright authoritarian cities (frequently held up as pinnacles of urban design and planning) as Dubai, Singapore or Shanghai.

      As a bit of a trade secret, I have to say that urban planners and designers frequently find ‘problems’ in towns globally to fix . . . as that is how they earn their money and/or mobilize public resources towards their pockets – with mixed results at best for their client cities when they offer one-size-fits-all approaches based on sweeping generalizations and informed by a distanciated and otherwise limited understanding of, appreciation for or investment in local context (time is money). I’m talking to you, Project for Public Spaces.

      To note, it is also common fodder to declare as ’empty’ and/or ‘corrupt'(or otherwise ‘illegal’) urban spaces and uses somebody is fixin’ to change for their particular benefit – such as moving out a bus stop or station (that serves many people) to create the kind of exclusive environment that an upscale restaurant can cater to.

      I’m not sure I’d call the Blanco Cafe ‘big name’ or ‘old money’ or suggest that they are anything but hard working or honest or servers of ‘real’ food . . . and from the article, it doesn’t sound like Chef Mike is seeking downtown business equity or justice. Rather, it sounds like he is spruiking for favoritism from the city (as well as for urban ‘renewal’ near his investment) based on Restaurant Gwendolyn’s status as a (failing) sustainability-themed high-end restaurant . . . with special parking needs? Sounds like a classic bourgeois bohemian (or simply yuppy) conundrum.

  8. There was a 3rd party parking study done a few years ago, which deemed we had plenty of spaces. Maybe not well distributed, or well marked, but plentiful. Revisit that, and compare our downtown to similarly sized cities.

  9. I, as a fellow business owner, applaud anyone with the intestinal fortitude to open a business in these times. The restaurant business is especially a tough one and down on the river is even tougher because of the expense and the dependency on tourism and the locals coming to your business after traveling the distance and finding a place to park. I find it appalling that you have no signage and are being threatened to remove your small but wonderful gift of trees to make the Riverwalk a better place.

    Some things in life that people complain about make no sense in the larger picture. Evidently the people who enforce such silly things have never had the guts to open up a business and are simply little robots of the company they work for at a small pittance in return for their menacing and vigilant behavior. They remind me of bill collectors who never even know who they are talking to and who care even less about the situation.

    The management company for your property would do well to help bridge the gap between the city and your small business. When creative people are allowed to flourish a magical thing happens much like what has happened since the beginning of America. The people are happy, businesses with goods and services grow and so does the tax base from which many improvements can be made along with what each individual business brings to the table. The area takes on a different flair because each business contributes to the whole. Funny thing in situations like this no one asks the patrons what their opinion might be of the handmade benches that they can rest on or the way the Japanese Maples bring a flair to the outside of what is inside your establishment within. That might be too novel of a thought for small minded people.

    Take heart. You are not alone even though you feel like it. I relocated Indulgences Hair and Body SalonSpa, my 31 year old company, less than 3 years ago to an amazing location at Bitters and West Ave. where I have access to a common area outside patio on the 2nd floor. The first pieces of equipment I purchased were some patio furniture, a couple of table umbrellas, pots, planters and some simple grasses to beautify the area and create an inviting atmosphere for not only my clients but the other professional offices sharing the common area. I was so excited to begin the journey into my salon from the outside feeling of the courtyard. After being there almost 3 years I am being asked to remove the “stored” patio furniture. I am still in disbelief that anyone in their right mind would call anything that is enjoyed by a lot of people and used on a regular basis “stored.” I guess that the people who enforce these odd requests never spend time to see a business owner’s vision of creating the perfect business model and how many hours an owner spends working on and in their business. If things looked junky, then, by all means, remove or fix it to keep the integrity of the area. Unfortunately, the enforcers also never ask any of the neighbors if things are bothering the surrounding tenants and if so, what would be the best solution. They just come in and start wielding their “authority” with little regard to the fact that happy tenants are the most productive and pay their rent which enables the landlord to pay their bills too.

    It is a vicious circle sometimes and I have no real answers at this time to help you. The people who are hurt are the business owners but, most of all, the staff members who rely on entrepreneurs like us to feed and clothe their families. They too pay taxes and the circle goes on….. Keep your chin up and you will find a landlord that will appreciate you for all you do and your vision. You may need to just find a location that you can purchase or that is more tenant friendly. That means more construction money but it can mean peace of mind.

    May your business now be richly blessed.

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