Restaurant Overreach: Despite Raves, Gone in Six Months

Last November, three Philly-based veterans of Stephen Starr's restaurant organization found a backer, took wing and opened District 611 in Riverton. The BYO, offering real Neapolitan-style pizza and Italian small plates, earned positive reviews, including three stars from New Jersey Monthly last month. Then four days ago, District 611 suddenly shut down. Here's why.

The sudden closing had many in this Burlington County riverfront town scratching their heads.

According to two of District 611’s partners, the sudden closing May 13 was simply about not being able to make ends meet. Yet the reasons for the cash shortfall are in dispute, among the partners and within the community, which has weighed in heavily on Facebook and other online forums.

“We couldn’t pay the bills," said chef Brian Baglin, who manned District 611’s 3,000-pound brick pizza oven and formerly served as general manager of Pod, Starr’s Japanese-themed restaurant in West Philadelphia. "We hadn’t taken pay checks since January.”

Majority investor Jim Brandenburger,
who owns the strip plaza where the restaurant was located, agreed that they were sucking wind. By his estimate, a restaurant of District 611’s size (4,000 square feet) needs to gross $2 million a year. Despite heavy weekend traffic, he said, that is impossible to do just in food sales.

District 611’s location in a dry town and therefore its lack of a liquor license seemed to bear much of the blame, according to a typed notice posted on the restaurant’s front door and on its website.

“Because we are in Riverton," the May 13 message stated, "our issues are compounded by customer traffic (a natural downside of operating in the suburbs) and major limitations on the options for pursuing a liquor license (Riverton is a dry town—securing a liquor license is a tedious and lengthy process that we simply weren’t prepared for.)”

Several area residents were offended by the characterization.

“Using the ability to not be able to obtain a liquor license as a scapegoat is pretty lame," wrote Dave Primavera of Riverton on District 611’s Facebook page. "I’m pretty sure just about every resident of this town could have told you that one wasn’t going to happen.”

In an interview Tuesday, Brandenburger said he didn’t want to blame the failure on not having a liquor license. “We made a lot of mistakes,” he admitted. “We had a focus group and, frankly, I think we didn’t follow their advice.” (Full disclosure: In addition to writing restaurant reviews for New Jersey Monthly, I live in Riverton and attended that focus group, but as a private citizen, not as a journalist.)

Among the mistakes Brandenburger cited was overstaffing, dropping lunch service soon after the restaurant opened, and offering dishes that were too specialized, labor-intensive and not family-friendly.

“Everything was prepared fresh, and nothing was easy," he said. "Take something as simple as our pretzels with cheese-beer sauce. That sauce took eight hours to make, with about three hours of production time.”

Some questioned whether the team overreached. “We got pizza several times and, unfortunately, each time the bottoms were partially charred black and inedible," wrote Jackie Madarang of Cinnaminson on Facebook. "We liked the unusual selections, but wished there were also more traditional offerings.”

Brandenburger did not quibble with that criticism.

"It’s a notion that could work here," he maintained, "but it needs to be a hybrid, with some Starr-type signature dishes mixed in with just good home-cooked meals.”

Baglin told me he thinks a sophisticated, Starr-type concept could work in Riverton. “People seemed to love it," he said. "The local folks were very supportive."

Nevertheless, the District 611 corporation has been dissolved. Brandenburger retains the space and the business in Riverton while the three others shop the District 611 concept to other Jersey and Pennsylvania towns that have more foot traffic and available liquor licenses.

Brandenburger said he plans to reopen another restaurant in Riverton soon, focusing on pizza (in hopes of recouping the $40,000 he invested in District 611’s open pizza kitchen) and a more realistic assessment of local tastes.

“If you’re going to be the kind of restaurant that’s supported by the town, you have to be more than a date-night place,” he said. “Chipotle pork sliders are fine, but a kid wants to order a regular cheeseburger with fries.”

Click here to read NJM’s April review of District 611.

 

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