Friday, April 23, 2010

A bad case of food poisoning?

Selling food in a spruced up and expanded Ketchum Town Square started out as a sweet idea until it soured in the face of reality.

The last two years have been really tough for restaurants. The unprecedented recession kept droves of customers at home or eating out less frequently. No amount of tenderizer can disguise that.

Proponents of allowing food vendors on the public square—a well-seasoned group of well-traveled and well-meaning people, most of whom have never worked in the restaurant business—argue that the smell of food wafting through the air will enliven the square, get people out of their homes and get them to hang out and make the town more interesting.

"Make it like an Italian piazza" was the dish they served up at a public hearing.

For the majority of restaurant owners, the idea sounds more like a nasty grease trap. And unfortunately for the proponents, the owners have years of local option sales tax records to back them up, records that show that diners' consumption of everything from pasta to pig cheeks has been static—or declining in constant dollars—since the 1980s.

This means that when a new restaurant comes into the market, it can survive only if it lures customers away from other restaurants. In short, competition is fierce and restaurants are fragile.

The seasonality of tourism also makes summer vendors at the Town Square a greater threat to established restaurants than it might be ordinarily. The summer months are when the Sun Valley area hosts more visitors and does more business than any other time. Summer's profits are like yeast: too little and there's no bread.

If enlivening the square with competing food vendors chokes an existing restaurant, it will reduce the town's already narrow—and narrowing—dining options. The result will be like E. coli in an underdone burger.

The Ketchum City Council should look to the city's own welfare in this proposition. While the council may think a new food-filled square will be tasty, members may end up queasy when they realize that the vendor-inflicted death of a year-round local restaurant will give its sales tax collections a bad case of food poisoning for the rest of the year.

As for demanding that restaurant owners come up with a compromise? This is cruel and unusual punishment in an economy in which restaurants have already been beaten bloody—with no market for steak tartare.

The call for compromise is like asking a line of condemned people to decide which of them will eat the last supper first. It's no compromise.

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