After about five years in business, Fork at 532, a locally owned restaurant at 532 Washington St., will close at 10 p.m. Thursday.
Owner/operator Doug Van Epps said his revenues were cut in half in 2010 by the economic crisis and an unfair playing field created by subsidies city officials pumped into new restaurants in the Fourth Street parking garage and the new Commons mall.
Through Thursday, the restaurant will be open from 5 to 10 p.m. daily.
Van Epps said that he had borrowed money from family and a bank to build the restaurant, upgrade the kitchen and purchase furniture. In 2009, the restaurant came close to being profitable, he said, but he struggled to make his payments and pay employees in 2010 and 2011.
While revenues declined, costs remained. And though he eventually discontinued catering and lunch service, increasing costs for water, for example, made cutting costs difficult.
“It was an insurmountable hole. It was just one thing after another,” Van Epps said. “It’s just frustrating.”
Van Epps, a Columbus native, said he had high hopes when he opened the restaurant with a Spain-inspired tapas concept, offering smaller plates of food, such as mini bison burgers, that guests were supposed to share. He wanted to offer something unique. He rejected, for example, the idea to install TV sets, because he wanted the experience to be about the food and the conversations.
He said many female customers told him they liked the restaurant because their boyfriends or spouses could not look over their shoulders to watch a game on TV. He fondly remembers couples who had their first dates at the restaurant and those who got engaged there.
Though sales rebounded somewhat in 2012, Van Epps said the financial hole was just too deep.
Van Epps said that his revenues also suffered because he had to compete against other eateries on an uneven playing field.
Beginning in 2008, the Columbus Redevelopment Commission, a city agency, leased the publicly owned parking garage at Fourth and Jackson streets to Columbus Downtown Inc., a not-for-profit corporation created specifically to handle the leasing of parking and restaurant space in the garage.
Former city officials have said they created CDI to expedite downtown development and provide better control of the types of businesses that would locate in the center of the city.
As part of those efforts, CDI provided nearly $500,000 in public money to the two restaurants in the parking garage. The funds paid for work such as design, plumbing and furnaces, ceilings and floors. City officials have said that landlords of commercial spaces often provide funds to allow the tenant to prepare a business for opening. The landlords typically recover such expenditures through higher lease payments.
Public funds also helped pay for preparations of some restaurants in the new Commons mall.
State auditors have said that some of the city’s actions were improper — although former city officials maintain that their actions were approved by their legal counsel.
Van Epps said that some of those new restaurants came to Columbus only because of the city’s intervention, while others would not have opened as quickly as they did.
At the height of the recession, banks were careful about loaning money, Van Epps said, and without the city’s subsidies, some of the restaurant owners would not have been able to raise the cash required to open the restaurants.
“It’s very frustrating that these places ... were lured down here with our money ... for me to compete against them,” he said.
Other downtown restaurant owners have lodged similar complaints.
Mary Arnholt, who owns Smith’s Row Food & Spirits, on Fourth Street, recently wrote a letter to the editor in which she described how she launched her restaurant without help.
“Other than a tax abatement, I received no financial assistance from the city of Columbus or any corporation,” she wrote.
Kurt Schwarze, a member of the Downtown Columbus Independent Restaurant Association and co-owner of Fourth Street Bar & Grill, said the city should not have picked and chosen which businesses came downtown.
“It should be up to the free market,” he said.
Market forces would have better been able to determine what restaurants and other businesses would have operated successfully, Schwarze said.
He also said that some of his customers have told him that the city has a great downtown and good restaurants — but lacks entertainment options.
Van Epps echoed that complaint.
Virtually all businesses that have opened downtown in the past few years have been food-related, he said. And every time a new restaurant opens, the existing ones see a dip in sales, at least temporarily, he said.
Tom Vujovich, a former member of the Redevelopment Commission, said he was disappointed about Fork’s demise, though he said the actions taken by city officials at the time have proved successful.
“The environment that we created is a very good one,” he said.
Van Epps said he will get out of the restaurant business and probably move to Indianapolis, although he will remain connected to Columbus because he has two daughters in school here.