Rising costs turn up heat on ByWard Market eateries

Hydro hikes, parking woes making life tough for high-end dining establishments in popular tourist zone, observers say

News that another acclaimed ByWard Market restaurant is closing its doors is a further indication of a shift in the city’s culinary landscape, industry observers say.

The owners of Murray Street announced in late August that the eight-year-old business’s last night will be New Year’s Eve. They blamed the decision partly on a challenging climate for restaurants in the popular tourist district.

Retail analyst Barry Nabatian of market research firm Shore-Tanner & Associates said a number of factors have contributed to the demise of several high-end restaurants in the neighbourhood. Hydro rates have risen far faster than the rate of inflation over the past several years, he noted, and taxes and insurance costs have also been consistently going up.

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“These have all been working against small businesses in general and restaurants in particular,” he said.

Restaurant owners have been forced to pass on some of those increased costs to customers, Mr. Nabatian said. But even then, most establishments are reluctant to raise prices enough to completely make up the difference for fear of pricing themselves out of the market.

“They’re really caught between a rock and a hard place,” he said.

Even still, customers are feeling the pinch and are starting to cut back on eating out, Mr. Nabatian explained.

“People are finding (the price increases) are too much,” he said.

Mr. Nabatian and others say the ByWard Market in particular is going through a bit of a rough patch right now. Murray Street’s owners said a lack of parking and a growing perception that the Market is becoming more of a bar destination than a restaurant haven are hurting business.

Ross Tavel, a real estate agent at Royal LePage Performance Realty, agreed.

“I feel like it’s turning from what used to be a place where you would want to sort of go as a couple or a family into a nightlife destination,” said Mr. Tavel, who brokered the sale of Murray Street’s building at 110 Murray St. to another group connected to the food industry. “And the traffic is awful. I think that’s been driving business away.”

Others who keep a close eye on trends in the Market say they are seeing a shift in the type of dining establishments in the neighbourhood. A number of other well-regarded ByWard Market restaurants have said farewell in the past couple of years, including Domus Cafe and the Empire Restaurant, formerly the Empire Grill.

“I don’t think the restaurant industry is by any means dying in the Market, but it is changing,” said Bruce Wolfgram, a vice-president at Primecorp Commercial Realty who represents a number of commercial tenants in the area.

“We’re seeing fewer and fewer high-end restaurants there, but there appears to be beginning to be a good abundance of mid-priced restaurants.”

Mr. Nabatian said the ByWard Market, like any other entertainment district, must adapt to changing demographics and evolving tastes if it hopes to stay relevant.

“It just has lost its dynamism and excitement,” he said. “It hasn’t been changing with the times.”

Still, Mr. Tavel said he’ll be sorry to see Murray Street and its celebrated cuisine go.

“There’s no other restaurant that served all the Canadian meat and game that these guys did,” he said. “They had a niche, and they did it with style and quality from top to bottom.”


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