UPDATE: Forté Executive Feels City Contributed to Failure
Executive sees spread of bistros as a factor in abrupt closing: 'The pie is only so big.'
The sudden closing of Forté, a fixture on South Old Woodward since 1995, leaves a highly visible vacancy on one of downtown's most active business strips.
Diners, city officials and the building owner said today they were startled to learn that Tuesday night's meals were Forté's final servings. "I'm surprised they closed without announcing a new owner," said landlord Ted Fuller of Fuller Central Park Properties in Birmingham. "I thought they had made a deal."
Mayor Gordon Rinschler said: "I was surprised, too, though good, well-managed restaurants go out of business all the time."
Forté had felt economic strains that couldn't continue, according to George Wyckhuyse, chief operating officer of its owner, Epoch Restaurant Group in Novi. "We've been going month-to-month for a while now," he acknowledged.
A possible sale "is still pending, negotiations are going forward." He declined to identify the interested party, beyond confirming "it's not Andiamo" – a group with 12 Metro Detroit sites.
Bistro ordinance faulted
In addition to a drop in restaurant-going during the economic slump since 2008, Wyckhuyse said, his business was affected by a 2007 bistro ordinance that expanded liquor licenses in Birmingham. "When we started, I think there were only 16 licenses," he said in a late-afternoon interview. "Then all these bistros started. I think we would have had a better chance without as many. The pie is only so big."
He feels city officials encouraged imbalanced competition because small bistros "have lower rent and lower prices than fine dining establishments like ours."
Forté patron Elizabeth Katzman of Birmingham said "it will be missed." The mother of two, a former attorney and blogger who hosts the local cable TV show Elizabeth's Kind Café, describes herself as "a fan of Forté since it opened. It has been a staple of our social life for years."
The white-tablecloth destination, which had experimented with menu changes and weekday breakfasts in recent years, described itself in a 2008 promotional video as "a contemporary American restaurant (with) a very straightforward approach to great American cooking." Its French-based name means strong point or area of excellence.
'Disappointing' family visit
In the view of one repeat patron, quality and attentiveness had "deteriorated." Elaine McMahon of Birmingham elaborated: "We joined our youngest and his then-fiancée three years ago for their engagement dinner. The day was delightful, but sadly, even back then, the service and the food were disappointing."
Downtown merchant Richard Astrein, a member of the 11-member Principal Shopping District Board, was chagrined to learn that he and his wife had been among closing day guests at the dining spot two doors north of the Birmingham 8 Theater. "We just had lunch there Tuesday," he said, "and remarked again how nice it was. They were a good corporate citizen."
Astrein noted that Forté hadn't set up patio seating this spring, which now seems like a clue of trouble. "There were rumors that Andiamo might be coming in there," added the owner of Astrein's Creative Jewelry.
Executives at Epoch "were talking to several companies and had narrowed it down to one," Fuller said. "They thought they had made a deal. Maybe some wrinkle came up, I don't know. I'm waiting to hear back."
Unlike his tenant, Fuller welcomes bistros as adding to Birmingham's appeal and visitor traffic. "The marketplace will determine who does well," he added. "That's how it works, and it's not city government's role to protect certain businesses from competition."
Lease obligation debated
Epoch remains responsible for monthly lease payments, Fuller explained, though the tenant could exercise an option to withdraw "very soon." For his part, Wyckhuyse said the restaurant will shut down to avoid further lease obligations.
"It's not necessarily the way he put it," the operating officer said when asked about Fuller's description. He disputed a suggestion that the sudden shutdown the day after Memorial Day signals a crisis or financial emergency.
At the Birmingham-Bloomfield Chamber of Commerce, president Joe Bauman recalled hosting after-hours mixers and other networking events at Forté. "It's always sad when a business goes under," he said. "It was a great business and a great restaurant."
Bauman and other boosters insisted the brusque departure, reportedly without advance notice to staff members, isn't an ominous economic indicator for the city. "Overall, the business climate in Birmingham, particularly downtown, remains strong," the chamber president said. He cited the arrival of Forest Grill, Fleming's, Cameron's, Tallulah and Mitchell's during the last four years as evidence.
That message was echoed by a Principal Shopping District statement. "Several fine establishments have opened which strengthened Birmingham's dining atmosphere, and will continue to do so," said director John Heiney.
City Commissioner Mark Nickita, a Detroit architect and urban planning specialist, regrets the loss of a business that contributed to street life — particularly at this season. "The outdoor dining along Old Woodward Avenue added vibrancy to that part of the street, and during the summer months will be noticeably absent," he commented from Madison, WI, where he's attending a Congress for the New Urbanism event.
Nickita is among those hoping for a short vacancy: "The location is very visible and is relatively large. Therefore, this opening creates a high quality retail space opportunity for an exciting new establishment in Birmingham."
Similarly, Rinschler is "optimistic we'll fill that space as quickly as possible and move forward." Taking a long-view perspective, he noted: "Sixteen years is wonderful for a restaurant. Some people in Birmingham think they can go on forever, like Peabody's, but you never know what will happen. Tastes change."
Astrein knows more about metals than meals, but he recognizes that retail success of any kind can be elusive. "It's hard," he said, "I've been here 40 years and if I told you how many businesses I've seen come and go, we wouldn't have time. With that many restaurants in town, it's inevitable (some fail). There isn't enough density to support all of them."
Elaine McMahon, a business finance specialist who retired this year as a Comerica senior vice president, has long known that "restaurants have about the worst success rate of any establishment. It's a tough business. You have to be on top and stay on top to win and sustain your client base. That's a hard thing to do over the decades."
The former banker added: "Even when a great restaurant has one bad night, the result is that many or most of those customers may not come back and they probably share those experiences with others. When that continues for a while, it's a restaurant death sentence. The good news is that there are a lot of new and older restaurants that have stayed fresh in all categories in downtown Birmingham that will still be there for us to frequent."