Unprofitable, Piccolo's faces the music

Owner blames chains, loss of customers for demise of restaurant

May 21, 2001|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

Boxes are half packed and chairs are still on the tables at mid-afternoon at Piccolo's restaurant in Columbia. The long-standing landmark off Snowden River Parkway in Columbia - a welcome spot for antipasto and arias - has closed, blaming smaller crowds and more competition for its decline.

The spacious Italian dining house has drawn large crowds, supported local artists by displaying their work and served up steaming pasta, delicate meats and creamy sauces to salivating customers for a dozen years.

But co-owner Judy A. Munn said the restaurant could not thrive in today's climate.

"In today's economy, [with] the influx of the chains, it's been a struggle to keep our quality and be competitive," said Munn, who also was the restaurant's general manager.

"We did not want to lower the quality, so we decided to go out on top," she said. "Knowing the market and the number of chains, it's hard for the independent person to stay alive."

The news came as a surprise, even to Marcia Harris, executive director of the Columbia-based Restaurant Association of Maryland. Piccolo's had been named in a Columbia Magazine reader poll as "Best Italian Restaurant" in October.

"Piccolo's was certainly still at the peak," Harris said. "They're busy every time I pass them."

The doors closed May 8, and workers began moving food and furniture soon after. Munn said the 270-seat restaurant had plenty of loyal customers in the community, but not enough to fill those seats often enough.

A Dun and Bradstreet report lists estimated revenue for the restaurant at $1.8 million for this year with 80 employees. Munn would not discuss the company's finances, but said it was "not profitable" when it closed.

"We tried numerous things to make [the restaurant] smaller, and it wasn't successful," she said.

Munn said a combination of things led to the closing, among them a smoking ban in restaurant bars that cut into profit, increasing competition from large chain restaurants that has drawn some customers away and a sluggish national economy that didn't seem to suggest the restaurant could rebound any time soon. But Harris said competition from chains shouldn't have hurt Piccolo's that badly.

National chains do have some strong advantages, such as greater purchasing power and powerful marketing engines. But independent restaurants have the ability to respond to customer demand more quickly and typically have greater ties to the area that foster customer loyalty.

"There are independents in the county that are doing just great," Harris said. "It's a tough business to make money in, but lots of people are and lots of independents are."

Stuart Teper and Richard Ackman, co-owners of the independent King's Contrivance Restaurant in Columbia, are two of those. They said they haven't seen any decline in Columbia's economy, or felt squeezed by the influx of chain restaurants.

"You can't tell me we have a poor economy at this point," Ackman said. "I've seen one of the best years in 21 years. Business in this town is rolling."

Munn said there are no plans to reopen Piccolo's in a smaller location, and the owners had not made any decision on what to do with the property.

Since its opening in 1989, Piccolo's brought more than fine dining to Columbia. In 1996, the restaurant introduced Opera Night, during which singers from the Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan Repertory Opera performed for two hours one weeknight a month.

The next year, the owners began displaying works by local artists on walls in its Florentine Room, giving local artists wider exposure and helping them sell their work.

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