While restaurants don't fail as frequently as many diners believe - a 2003 American Express ad famously trumpeted the baseless claim that 90 percent of restaurants don't survive their first year, setting the myth in motion - few financial advisers would suggest that their clients plow their money into the food industry.
The restaurant business is rough on nearly everyone: According to a 2005 study published in the Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, one-quarter of new restaurants are closed or sold within 12 months. Within three years, 60 percent of restaurants have either closed or sold. The statistics are equally grim for chain and independent restaurants, and it seems unlikely that restaurant owners' prospects have improved during the recession.
So why does anybody open a restaurant? It's a question often posed by our Grillaxin' correspondents, and the most frequent responses can be grouped under two broad categories: Art and Money. (The commonly cited "I don't know how to do anything else," is really just a variation on the financial explanation.) Although there were certainly exceptions to the rule, many of the entrepreneurs I encountered while working as a food critic in Dallas weren't shy about the economic reasons underlying their restaurant endeavors. They often structured their restaurants in ways that could be easily replicated elsewhere, since franchising was considered synonymous with success.
Most Seattle restaurant owners wouldn't snub financial success, but few would publicly cop to wanting to get filthy rich. It's far more common for restaurant owners here to say they opened their restaurants because they wanted to support the region's farmers; disseminate beauty; connect with the community; share their cultural heritage or express themselves.
But it doesn't take a dining room to accomplish the above artistic objectives. A food obsessive could achieve many of the same ends by delivering farm-fresh eggs to home cooks or pickling green tomatoes. And yet restaurants still open at an astounding rate, presumably because chefs who aren't driven by visions of wealth feel compelled by love or duty to put their stamp on a city's dining scene.
I've reviewed a fair number of restaurants over the past year that owe their origins to well-developed senses of civic duty. I'm thinking here of Zephyr Paquette, whose friends urged her to open Skelly and the Bean, but also talents such as Greg Atkinson, who opened Restaurant Marche in Bainbridge after an illustrious cheffing and writing career. Atkinson told the Seattle Times' Nancy Leson that the restaurant was a "practical next step."
"I'm integrated in the community and have the support of the community and the [Seattle area] restaurant community at large," Atkinson was quoted as saying in an August 2011 blog post. "This seemed almost inevitable." Seattle chefs, it seems, often do what's expected of them - and the dining public is probably much the better for it.
Still, it's awfully nice to come upon the rare restaurant owner whose work is fueled by passion instead of responsibility. Chrystal Handy, owner of The New Mexicans in Everett - the subject of this week's review - is that kind of restaurant owner. Handy readily admits that she wants to make a go of it: She opened the restaurant so her daughters would have steady jobs after she retired. Yet she brings an honest joy to her work that isn't always apparent in new Seattle restaurants. Cooking is an extension of Handy's personality, and The New Mexicans is an extension of her home kitchen. I love the place.
Interestingly, while Handy is an extraordinarily hard worker, the restaurant's such a natural fit for her that she doesn't sweat stepping away from it. "I can't wait to get back," she says of plans to relocate to rural eastern Washington. And just last week, The New Mexicans took a brief vacation.
"There will be times where the public will see a "gone fishing" sign on our door, (which is actually on the door as we speak!)," she e-mailed this weekend. "We have a place near Gifford on Lake Roosevelt, and we are taking a much needed break! Be back on Thursday."
According to the calendar, that's today, which means there's no reason why you shouldn't pay Handy a visit. Make sure to order a cinnamon roll.