NORTH CENTER — An early adopter of the farm-to-table concept, Browntrout restaurant will close its doors Aug. 30 after a slow summer has pushed the business into the red, said chef/owner Sean Sanders.
"We just can't seem to hold it together," Sanders said.
Receipts are down 25 percent from August 2014, "for what reason, I don't know," he said. "It's drying up on us."
On any given Sunday, Browntrout, 4111 N. Lincoln Ave., might serve 100 people, and then fewer than 30 customers the next.
"It's so erratic. What's really stopping us now is we can't make payroll." Sanders said. "I'm proud of what we've done here, but I can't keep a Band-Aid on it."
Patty Wetli says Sanders was open about the restaurant's problems:
Sanders said he could try to hold on until the fall and winter, when business traditionally picks up, but then he'd be facing the same downturn next summer.
"I don't want to take people through the wringer," he said, adding that he fears "getting pushed against the same ropes."
Browntrout opened in 2009 on what Sanders thought was a can't-miss section of Lincoln Avenue and went on to earn five consecutive Michelin Bib Gourmand's.
"I feel like we're putting out our best food," said Sanders, pointing to Browntrout's overwhelmingly positive Yelp! reviews.
But the trend in restaurants seems to be leaning heavily toward niche, he said, naming success stories like Fat Rice, Pub Royale and the just-opened Small Cheval.
"In 2009, our niche was farm-to-plate. That's not a niche anymore," he said.
Another problematic shift: Social media has provided less and less of a marketing boost, with Facebook charging businesses to have their posts seen, and Twitter expanding to the point where most followers are outside of Chicago.
The Lincoln Avenue location has also proved "not the greatest," said Sanders.
Families in the area spend so much on housing, when it comes to dining out, they tend to opt for more affordable pub grub, he conjectured.
Having tried a number of last-ditch efforts to keep the doors open, including taking on a $30,000 loan, Sanders said, "At this stage, we're ready to go."
"This was a big dream of mine. Now, I don't feel like cooking," he said. "It's torn my soul up a little bit. My soul's real tired."
Sanders' modest goal for Browntrout's remaining days is to generate enough business to avoid bankruptcy and close on a high note. Beyond that, his future plans are murky.
"I don't know, I might be a bike messenger for a few months," he said.
Or maybe he'll resurrect the concept he once had for a sandwich shop.
If he does open another eatery, Sanders already knows one thing he'll do differently from the outset: "I'm going to get a bunch more money to start with."
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