Jim Sullivan on the end of Ocean and Nine75
Thank you for your continued patronage.
Due to the poor economy we have decided to close the restaurant.
We are sorry for the any [sic] inconvenience.
The sign went up on the front door of Nine75 early this afternoon, and not long after, I got a call from the man himself: Jim Sullivan.
“Jason, I thought we were friends?” he said, saying that he’d thought we were past all our battles, all the infighting that had marked our relationship over the years. And while that is true—to a point—apparently our notions of friendship (or at least amity) are slightly different. “So what are you doing calling those poor girls?”
"Those poor girls" being the restaurant managers left behind to see to the disposition of the last two restaurants in the Jim Sullivan empire, Ocean and Nine75, which went dark after the end of service on Saturday, September 27. I’d called them because that’s what I do -- dial the phone, get staff on the line, try to find out what went down in the final hours before a restaurant bit the dust.
Jim’s girls, though? They weren’t talking. To hear Jim’s daughter, Leigh Sullivan (who once handled PR for her father’s group), explain it, this is because Jim turned out good soldiers,people who loved him. Over the past five years, I've also met former employees who've hated him. But these girls were the former -- good soldiers who weren’t going to say a word.
“I told you,” Jim continued. ‘You have a question, you call me.”
I did have some questions, as a matter of fact. And the two of us, we got right into them.First and foremost: what the fuck happened?
“I did this because of the poor economy,” Jim said. Because of the stock market (which he was able to quote to me: down 778.68 at close) and because of this recession, which has resulted in sales down 30 percent, food cost up 9 percent, labor cost up 6 percent. “The first thing that happens in a recession—and believe me, we’re in a recession—is that people give up the luxuries," he told me. "Restaurants are luxuries. Going out to eat is a luxury.” The Democratic National Convention didn't help, either; too many heightened expectations and cancelled parties.
As much crap as I’ve given the man over the years, I have to give Jim credit for the fact that he is a businessman, first and foremost. A guy who makes money. And when the time comes that he stops making money—and believes that there is no meaningful chance to make more money at some point in the future—he’s gone. Doors closed, lights out, good night and good luck. I’ve said some nasty things about how this affects his employees (at this point, his method of closure—which is to do it without telling anyone until it’s done—is pretty much policy), but his defense is that he has no choice. “They wouldn’t show up!” he insisted, were he to tell his employees in advance that the restaurant was closing down. And having been in that situation myself several times over back in the day, I have to admit that, yeah, he's probably right. You tell a dishwasher that you’re very sorry but his job is going to be gone sometime next month, you know what that dishwasher is gonna do? Nod knowingly, say he’s sorry that things had to work out this way, then steal everything that’s not nailed down and never show up again.
“All my employees will be paid,” Jim continued. “All my taxes will be paid. All my gift cards will be honored.” Admittedly, he has yet to figure out exactly how that will work -- considering he no longer has any restaurants to honor them. Still, he said he was going to do right by everyone, that this whole decision -- as awful as it is -- was necessary.
“I feel horrible for me, but I feel worse for my employees," he said. "I could cry, you know? I know that sounds stupid. You know me. I’m not exactly the kind of guy who cries over things. But that’s the saddest part about giving up—walking out on all those people. I feel like I failed them.”
He said that his staff did all they could, that he did all he could, but in the end, there just wasn’t any profit to be made. Not now. Maybe not for a long time.
“Not that anyone should be worried about me," Jim said, "but what worried me? It’s not so much the money, it’s the emotional capital. It’s walking in and seeing a half-empty restaurant. And this was really bothering me. But then I started going out to other restaurants, and I don’t want to name names or nothing, but other places? They were half-full, too. So I could’ve gone on longer, you know? But I didn’t see any end in sight.”
Serious predictions coming from a guy who once was among the kings of the game in Denver. “We’re not the first," he concluded. “We won’t be the last.” -- Jason Sheehan