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Friday, April 12, 2024

‘It’s just not worth it anymore’: Multiple Gainesville restaurants close, cite financial restraints

A recent influx of closures, openings alter the local business landscape

During America’s holiday season, known for its boom in spending and time shared with loved ones, it would be easy to assume restaurants flourished along with the retailers. But Gainesville’s business landscape tells a different tale.

As the lingering effects of the Coronavirus pandemic and higher costs of living disrupt the economy, Gainesville’s business landscape is seeing significant changes. Changes that come at the cost of several community staples. 

In the weeks following the closing announcement of doughnut shop Halo Potato Donuts Nov. 27, local restaurants like Swamp Boil and Sweet Dreams announced their official closures by the end of 2023 under similar circumstances. 

La Fiesta, a Mexican restaurant that voiced its impending closure Dec. 4, stayed open due to funds and support from the Gainesville community, the restaurant said in a news release according to the Gainesville Sun.

Son Vo is the former owner of Swamp Boil, Gainesville’s first Vietnamese-Cajun fusion restaurant formerly located on Northwest 13th Street. 

Inspired by their visits to another Vietnamese-Cajun restaurant in Orlando, the Vos ended up opening a restaurant of their own at their family-owned plaza where Vo’s mother also runs the  Luxury Nails & Spa salon.

Though entering the restaurant industry with no previous experience was a challenge, Vo said, he was helped by the advice and support from other local business owners. 

“I was able to just go to my ‘competitors’ and ask them to help me, and they did,” Vo said. “People even came into the restaurant and helped me organize things.”

Creating an atmosphere where customers could share meals and connect over the restaurant’s food was his favorite aspect of the experience, he added.

However, the journey wasn’t easy. Operating a restaurant involves balancing manufacturing, customer service and HR. When one aspect goes wrong, it can throw off the entire system, Vo said. Swamp Boil also opened amid the social and economic climate of the COVID-19 pandemic, slowing business. 

After three years of serving Vietnamese and Cajun dishes, the restaurant reached the end of its run in Gainesville last month.

Vo said as people get less disposable income, they are more likely to regularly eat at cheaper locations or save up for occasional visits to expensive restaurants. As a result, the restaurants in between are overlooked.

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“[Gainesville’s restaurant industry] is a smaller view of our overall economy and how the middle class is disappearing,” Vo said. “It’s kind of the same thing, but the middle class of restaurant types are also disappearing.” 

Restaurants aren’t the only ones closing their doors. Last month, independent bookstore Third House Books announced on Instagram it would be closing its brick-and-mortar location and switching to a pop-up bookstore business model by mid-2024. 

Although not all businesses have disclosed their reasons for shutting down, many have cited the higher costs of living and other economic restraints as the cause of closure.

Sweet Dreams, an ice cream parlor with 19 years of service under its belt, referenced its financial struggles in a post announcing its Final Flavor Night on Facebook.

“My costs have soared since Covid and have not returned to anything approaching reasonable,” the post said. “Along with the higher wages for employees. And the multitude of random fees and aggravations. It is just not worth it anymore.”

To the surprise of the community, local donut shop Halo Potato Donuts announced the closure of all three of its Alachua County locations in November. 

Many commenters expressed shock and sadness underneath the company’s closure announcement on Instagram. When one user asked why it closed, Halo Potato Donuts replied simply. 

“This economy has taken a toll on Halo. We no longer saw the sales needed to cover all of our expenses,” the bakery’s Facebook said. 

Nicholas Palomba is a 25-year-old software developer in New York with early memories of the local doughnut spot during his time at UF. Before the business had a brick-and-mortar location, it sold doughnuts through a food truck often parked outside Palomba’s internship. 

He said he visited the truck two to three times a week to enjoy his usual order of a classic glazed donut with cookies and cream on top. 

“It was nice enjoying another local startup’s food while working for another local startup,” Palomba said. “It made the rest of my time at the University of Florida much better as I got to appreciate the city UF was in.”

Ashley Rella is a Gainesville chef and food writer, as well as the operations partner of Sandwich Inn, Gainesville’s oldest restaurant that has been serving burgers and breakfast since 1963. 

Operating the business off and on for about 10 years, Rella has witnessed the restaurant’s popularity increase, particularly due to its breakfast menu. She recalls going to work at 3 a.m. with other staff members after getting an order for 250 breakfast sandwiches. After three hours of preparing the food in a packed kitchen, they finished the job before opening and continued their morning. 

Though the business remains open, the recent string of closures still hits close to home. 

“It’s unnerving to hear of restaurants [and] food businesses closing every single time,” Rella said. “Nothing is easy about restaurants. It takes grit and perseverance and even then that doesn’t guarantee you success.”

Rella says several reasons contribute to why a restaurant might close, including high costs of running the business, slim profit margins, unreasonable demands from customers and a highly saturated industry. 

“Our restaurants, bars, food spots are critical to our community and they provide much more than just a good meal or drink,” Rella said. “They are where we go to celebrate life, have our first dates, acknowledge milestones, let off steam, socialize and meet new people.”

Ria Pai is a 19-year-old UF business administration freshman and a writer for the UF chapter of Spoon, a national food-based publication. She became more familiar with Gainesville’s food scene and was surprised by what she found. 

“I think coming to Gainesville, you automatically feel like the whole food scene is very catered to college students,” Pai said. “I was very surprised by the wide array of foods you can find in Gainesville for it being such a small town.”

Although she didn’t have the chance to eat at Swamp Boil, Sweet Dreams or Halo Potato Donuts, she said she was saddened to hear about their closures and predicts the student population affects what restaurants are successful.

“I think it's becoming a lot easier for students to eat at what’s convenient,” Pai said. “And the things that are most convenient are fast food chain restaurants. Things that students are familiar with and a place close to campus or on campus itself.”

While some businesses are facing financial difficulties or closing, others, particularly chain restaurants, seem to be on the opposite side of the story.

In just the last year, Gainesville witnessed a variety of popular chain restaurants and businesses open their doors, including a Raising Cane’s, two Cava locations and, most recently, Crumbl Cookies. 

These stores have proven to be a hit with the community, with customers camping outside and waiting in long lines outside of the Raising Cane’s during its grand opening in June. 

Crumbl is a popular and fast-growing dessert franchise with over 900 locations across the United States. According to Maya MacIntyre, a 19-year-old UF biology sophomore and shift lead at Crumbl, the two-month-old location was the second-highest-volume Crumbl location in the United States for a period of time. 

“I think it’s a really special spot up here,” MacIntyre said. “Not just for being in a college town, but because I feel like there’s such a need for it here.”

Due to the next closest location being more than an hour's drive away in Jacksonville, the local spot has become a saturated spot for people eager to try the trendy and ever-changing menu. MacIntyre also credits the store being situated between two other dessert shops in Butler Plaza as a “sweet spot” for bringing in customers.

While franchises bring the usual perks of fast service, consistent menu items and a recognizable brand, some community members are airing concerns about the impact of these chains on local businesses.

“I think having more chains and corporations here draws the attention away from the local [businesses],” Vo said. “It’s giving people more options, which is great, but it does take away the money from local [businesses].”

Though Gainesville’s business landscape will always be evolving, businesses and customers alike are unsure of the future.

“I really hope that more local restaurants will continue to thrive,” Pai said. “I think that those are the ones that you make the most memories in.”

Contact Bonny Matejowsky at bmatejowsky@alligator.org. Follow her on X @bonnymatejowsky.

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Bonny Matejowsky

Bonny Matejowsky is a third-year journalism major and a Fall 2023 Avenue Reporter. When she’s not writing, you can find her thrifting or watching Twin Peaks.


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