Trapeze restaurant sinks in slumping economy

November 09, 2008|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,

When the upscale restaurant Trapeze opened in Fulton in 2005, critics hailed it as a "playful and sophisticated retreat," a place whose "soaring space" and flavorful fare could turn a quick detour off U.S. 29 into a memorable dining experience.

After three years, the retreat is no more. The first business to open in the Maple Lawn development in southern Howard County, Trapeze has shut its doors, an apparent victim of the recent economic downturn across the nation and the world.

"We deeply regret that [the] economic conditions that persist throughout the country forced us to close," owner Alexias Sharoky said in a statement released last week, "and we are also saddened by the loss of jobs to our great staff, many of whom have been with us through thick and thin."

Management broke the news to restaurant workers late last Saturday. The place was closed for business by Sunday night.

The decision reflected less a lack of quality in Trapeze and more the broader struggles of the dining-out industry during rough economic times, said Richard W. Story, chief of the Howard County Economic Development Authority.

"We haven't done a scientific study of it yet, but I don't think restaurants are doing well anywhere in this economy," he said. "Profit margins are razor-thin. When people lose their pensions on Wall Street, the consumer confidence you need is not there."

That is as true in Howard County as anywhere else, at least according to anecdotal evidence. In 2008 alone, Lone Star Steakhouse and Rocky Run Grill, once-popular Columbia establishments, were among those that closed.

"I dine out numerous times a week, for breakfast, lunch and dinner," said Story, who called himself a big fan of Trapeze's "casual upscale" cuisine. "I wouldn't use the sentence 'restaurants are hurting,' but in many places I go, where the lines are normally long, you can get a table right away."

Surprisingly, some figures show growth in the industry in Maryland, said Paul Hartgen, president of the Columbia-based Restaurant Association of Maryland. The state's comptroller reported a $200 million increase in total sales between last fall and this fall, he said - a result, perhaps, of special measures some restaurateurs took 12 to 18 months ago when they saw "dark clouds on the horizon." Some have saved money by offering smaller portions, others by creating drink specials or reconceptualized menus.

Still, Hartgen said, surveys taken a year ago showed that more restaurant operators saw the recruiting and retention of employees as their biggest concern over any other factor. This year, the economy outpaced every other consideration by a wide margin, and the state saw a net loss of 48 restaurants over the past year.

Stewart Greenebaum, Maple Lawn's developer, was "surprised and disappointed" to hear Trapeze was among them. A regular customer, he said, he often met Washington or Baltimore clients there and quickly fell in love with the seafood club sandwich.

"They were doing pretty near everything right," Greenebaum said. "The food was great; the pricing [$31 to $50 for a dinner entree] was right. What was terribly wrong was the economy."

As gas prices and unemployment have risen, house values dropped and pension plans diminished, the "perfect storm" developed for Trapeze's demise, he said.

Nationwide, fine-dining chains such as Morton's and Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, and more moderately priced ones such as the Cheesecake Factory, have seen their stocks lose up to 70 percent in value.

"[These conditions] don't give anyone, including me, the feeling, 'Hey, I want to go out and throw $100 bills around,' " Greenebaum said. "It has played especially hard on upscale restaurants."

Trapeze isn't the only Maple Lawn eating place to have felt recession-like effects. Across the street at oZ Chophouse, co-owner Katie Buscher said restaurants in the development have been competing for too few customers.

"There just aren't enough people in Maple Lawn to split between us, Trapeze and Anazul [a neighboring tapas bistro], especially during midday hours," Buscher said.

Early last month, oZ stopped serving lunch.

"Businesses are definitely looking for ways to adapt," Story said.

Whether Trapeze's fate reflects the broader fortunes of Maple Lawn depends on whom you ask. Greenebaum, founding partner of Greenebaum & Rose Associates, a Baltimore real estate firm, plans for Maple Lawn to include nearly 1,200 homes, many of them luxury residences, and nearly 2 million square feet of retail space in time.

With a Harris Teeter store slated to open in August, the commercial side of the development is proceeding ahead of schedule - Greenebaum said several interested parties have contacted him about leasing the Trapeze space - but the pace has been much more sluggish on the residential side. Only about 250 homes are completed and occupied, and the development he originally expected would take eight years to complete could take 10 or 12.

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