Monday, March 22, 2004

Suburbia tempting Maisonette

But change could be risky

By Ken Alltucker and Cliff Peale
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Owners of the Maisonette say the famed restaurant can't survive in downtown Cincinnati without an infusion of public cash. But with city officials reluctant to subsidize the restaurant, owner Nat Comisar is shopping for options at suburban locales from Covington to Forest Park to build a reinvented dining establishment that appeals to a younger clientele.

A suburban Maisonette? That's the restaurant's multimillion-dollar dilemma.

map Maisonette's red velvet, crystal and five-star rating are as synonymous with downtown Cincinnati as Carew Tower or Fountain Square. But with the convention business hurting and wealth shifting to the suburbs, Comisar said the restaurant has struggled to make money at its Sixth Street location.

Yet others say the Maisonette's troubles also indicate the difficulty of modernizing a family-owned, luxury restaurant. That weighs heavily on elected officials who are being asked to use taxpayer dollars to prop up a Cincinnati icon.

Mayor Charlie Luken is among those who don't want to spend millions in tax dollars to keep the Maisonette downtown.

"The problem is they think because they have the five stars, the city ought to step up and give the money," Luken said. "I don't see anything in the business plan that gives me hope for the long term. We may be just throwing good money after bad."

Comisar has discussed his downtown options with several public and quasi-private organizations over the last couple of years. The restaurateur has talked with Hamilton County, the regional port authority, the private downtown fund known as the equity fund and the Local Initiative Support Corp., a group that provides grants, loans and investment in distressed neighborhoods.

He's even turned to his own customers for help by asking they pay thousands of dollars upfront for future meals to help fund an expansion that would include a concert hall and a bistro. But after collecting more than $1 million from customers, he scrapped that plan. Customers can still collect their meals.

Comisar in recent months has spent his time scouting nine suburban sites in Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky. Covington and Kentucky officials have investigated whether a relocated Maisonette would qualify for the city's enterprise zone or a sales-tax rebate under the state's Tourism Development Act, said Andy Riffe, Covington's assistant city manager.

Yet a move to the suburbs would be more complicated than just making the numbers add up.

Comisar acknowledges a move could require a significant overhaul of the Maisonette's image, look and operations. The challenge is to snare new customers without chasing the old ones away or losing the restaurant's five-star rating.

Exterior view of the Maisonette on 6th Street, downtown.
(Glenn Hartong/file photo)
Mobil Travel Guide has awarded Maisonette its highest grade for four consecutive decades. If Maisonette moves, Comisar believes Mobil would give the restaurant at least a year to prove it still measures up to the guide's standards.

A suburban Maisonette "would be a younger animal," he said. "Envision the Maisonette with vitality and youth, excitement and electricity. It would still be the place for special occasions, the place for business lunches. At the same time, it would no longer be mom and dad's restaurant."

Financial proposals

Luken met with Maisonette representatives more than once. At one meeting, Comisar furnished a one-page proposal seeking more than $4 million in cash, Luken said.

The mayor said he objected to the amount, and questioned how the funds would be spent.

"It's all cash," Luken said. "Over $2 million of it was to pay off debt that he owes to his father and his uncle. I told them I didn't support that. I don't think taxpayers would want to pay off family obligations."

Comisar said he never asked for money to pay off family debt.

"It might have been perceived that way," Comisar said. "But there is no debt among family members."

What's more, the request was one of many options presented to the city, Comisar said. Another proposal called for $1.5 million to $2.5 million in city money. He declined to discuss specifics of the Maisonette's financial situation.

As recently as last week, Comisar chatted with the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. about crafting a deal to include a combination of public and private dollars.

Tom Blinn, 3CDC's interim director, said all parties are still trying to find a way to keep the Maisonette downtown. "We haven't put our finger on a solution relative to the kinds of things Nat is looking for," Blinn said.

Blinn said he encouraged Comisar to chat with the development group's Fountain Square retail developer, Lehr Jackson. The Maisonette's natural home is downtown, Blinn said, adding that restaurants and shops should benefit from a Fountain Square overhaul and the expanded downtown convention center opening in 2006.

"The best place for (the Maisonette) remains downtown for the product and brand as it's currently executed," Blinn said.

'Behind the ball'

While downtown business has suffered the past several years, many argue that the reluctance to change already has cost the Maisonette - particularly with the popularity of Jean-Robert at Pigall's, a Fourth Street restaurant operated by the Maisonette's former chef.

Restaurant experts across the country say Comisar and his family find themselves in a bind familiar to operators of small, independent restaurants around the country.

A sagging economy has forced restaurants to find new customers, but that often alienates existing customers, said John Mariani, a journalist who has written about the Maisonette for national food and dining publications. Nat Comisar also might have run up against his father's and uncle's wishes to maintain the Maisonette's traditional style. Mariani said Comisar told him of that dilemma. He said the Maisonette was updated with a renovation in the mid-1990s, but still faces the same choice.

"I think they'd like to change even more than they have," Mariani said. "But they then run the risk of alienating that old clientele without any assurance they could attract any new clientele."

"It's a classic French restaurant with very good food that at a certain point in its history had gotten behind the ball of what was going on in American cuisine."

It's also the kind of situation that has caused many exclusive restaurants, including Lutece in New York, to close.

Alex Susskind, an assistant professor in the Department of Food and Beverage Management at Cornell University, said small family-owned restaurants, particularly expensive ones such as the Maisonette, face the challenge of avoiding a "special occasion" designation.

"Those types of restaurants are losing a little bit of popularity, particularly among the younger generation," Susskind said. "They probably want something a little more lively and a little more upbeat."

Picking up tips

Comisar has been busily touring restaurants in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles to pick up tips on what may work here if the Maisonette moves to the suburbs.

"It would be a restaurant for (customers) 45 and younger, but without scrapping everything," he said. "We can't rebrand it. We can re-establish it."

The Maisonette's struggles haven't scared away suburban developers eager to land a restaurant with panache. Dining in increasingly is becoming a feature attraction as malls focus on entertainment. The newly opened Cheesecake Factory in Kenwood or Newport on the Levee's many themed restaurants are top draws.

Comisar reasons that the Maisonette would be a unique attraction in any number of suburban spots. A move, he said, also would put the restaurant closer to its customers - especially since fewer out-of-towners are going to the Maisonette.

In the restaurant's heyday of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Comisar says, 65 percent of the Maisonette's guests came from out of town. But now, only 18 percent of its diners are business travelers, convention attendees and others.

Comisar, who next year will be chairman of the Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau, knows the convention center expansion may bring financial relief to hotels and restaurants. Still, it may not be enough to justify keeping his restaurant downtown.

"People have moved from downtown and have become casual in their workplace," Comisar said. "Since I don't have the out-of-towner, the only sensible move is to a location where people can access us."

The former Forest Fair Mall, being redeveloped into Cincinnati Mills by the Mills Corp., has talked with the Maisonette. "We can pretty much fit whatever he wants," said spokesman Dennis Connolly.

But Connolly cautioned that the Maisonette as it exists today would be a flop in the suburbs.

"I don't think it would work anywhere in the suburbs as it is now, but he (Comisar) knows what will work best," Connolly said.



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