By the time she closed Naked Foods, Alison Oakes had worked through violent morning sickness, challenges hanging onto staff and persistent funding troubles.
"It was sad, but I'm relieved in a lot of ways," said Oakes, who has landed a flexible job that will give her the time she needs with her 5-month-old son. "There's only so much a new mom can take."
The restaurant business has always been a tough game, and Chattanooga's dining scene saw the closure of several longtime mainstays as well as the end of some upstarts in 2019.
Famous Dave's on Gunbarrel Road closed down after 16 years when the owner of the property terminated their lease. Terra Nostra on the Northshore shut its doors after 17 years when the owners decided the time had come to focus more on family and medical missions to Ecuador. And Bluewater Grille on Broad Street called it quits after 13 years, with promises to "re-concept" the restaurant.
The oft-cited stat that most restaurants close in their first year is bunk, according to research from the University of California-Berkeley and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Moccasin Bend Brewing Company
"Only 17 percent of independently owned full-service restaurant startups failed in their first year, compared with 19 percent for all other service-providing startups," according to the 2014 research.
But the factors that typically drive small, independent eateries to shut their doors tend to be personal rather than purely economic.
"Some small restaurants fail in part due to family demands such as divorce, health problems, and retirement; there is evidence that owners of successful restaurants are good at balancing personal and work lives or were not married," the report by the BLS and UC-Berkeley concluded.
Several new Chattanooga entries on the food scene have thrived, with a couple even expanding their footprints. Bleu Fox Cheese Shop opened on the Southside in 2017 and moved in 2019 to an expanded space. Six months after opening the first Tai Chi Bubble Tea eatery on Gunbarrel Road, the local franchisee for the Japanese-style restaurant chain opened a second location downtown in June.
One critical component of restaurant success is being relentlessly present, said Tenley Mayfield Brown, director of business operations for Monen Family Restaurant Group. In September, the Monens launched the latest in their series of popular local restaurants — Market South, a full-service food hall on the Southside at 1501 Long St., in the former home of Enzo's Market and the Grocery Bar.
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Married restaurateurs Mike and Taylor Monen were hands-on every day, prepping food, handling staff training and ensuring their newest venture got a strong start, Brown said at the time the food hall launched.
For Oakes, her inability to be the front-line face of Naked Foods in the first few months made for a wobbly start, she said. The restaurant was open less than a year in its spot on the ground floor of the Edney Building from January to late November 2019.
"It should have been me at the counter for every customer every time for the first year, and I just couldn't do it," said Oakes, who was early in her pregnancy with her son at the time she most needed to be in the trenches launching the restaurant. "I found out Dec. 1 (2018) that I was pregnant, which was wonderful, but then I was extremely ill for three months."