For years, the National Restaurant Association has referred to the foodservice industry as the "cornerstone" of the American economy. The numbers—120 million employees and $440 billion in sales—overtly back up the claim. And every day, grass-root activities in cities around America demonstrate just how important restaurants are to a community.
Here's a recent example: Weeks ago, Kentucky lawmakers approved a state sales tax incentive to lure Cincinnati's famed Maisonette restaurant to the Kentucky city of Covington, located just across the Ohio River. If Maisonette owner Nat Comisar goes for the deal, he'd recover 25% percent of the cost of opening a new restaurant in Covington through a rebate of states sales taxes. On top of that, Covington has offered a slew of other financial incentives that make the proposal nearly irresistible.
"The truth of the matter is, we've been getting offers from cities in a 360-degree circle around Cincinnati," says Comisar, whose Maisonette is the only restaurant in America to ever be recognized for 40 consecutive years with a Mobil Dining Guide Five-Star rating. "The offers are flattering, but my heart is in Cincinnati. I wish things were different."
For years, Maisonette has taken a financial beating while it held its ground with the hope that Cincinnati's anemic downtown would recover. It hasn't, and to stay any longer would be a bad business decision, says Comisar. Cincinnati officials don't want their greatest restaurant to relocate, but simply can't offer financial incentives. Sadly, the Maisonette's departure will be a further blow to the city's downtown.
All of this points to how important restaurants are to a community and the public's perception of it. With a downtown area crumbling around it, the Maisonette's reputation remains untarnished. It's so highly regarded, in fact, that several cities are licking their chops at the thought of making the Maisonette theirs. But there's more than bragging rights here. Great restaurants often serve as a cornerstone for a community.
John Mariani documents some of these successes in his column on page 28. Neighborhoods in cities all over America are making comebacks because some brave restaurant owner took the chance to settle down and do business. Before long, other businesses followed and civic rejuvenation churned.
Here in Cleveland, it happened in a long-neglected neighborhood called Tremont. For decades, the area declined so badly, most residents barely knew it existed. But then Michael and Liz Symon opened their restaurant, Lola, and people began to talk and find their way back to the neighborhood. Now, several years later, Tremont is once again vibrant with several very good restaurants, coffee shops, art galleries and housing developments.
There is no doubt that the Maisonette was the cornerstone of downtown Cincinnati. And there is no doubt it will become the cornerstone of another city. Some civic problems are bigger than any one restaurant, but one thing is sure: Maisonette will be around for as long as it wants to be.