The Anaya family all have a hand in operating Joe’s Steakhouse on Van Ness Avenue in Downtown Fresno. From left, Melissa, Jackie, Maribel, Joe and Joseph Anaya, and Ryan Barnett.
As Fresno continues its efforts with downtown revitalization, one portion of its nightlife may still be an emerging market — dinner.
Downtown real estate broker Veronica Stumpf with Stumpf and Co. estimates 50,000 people work or visit the downtown triangle on a daily basis.
Even more than rent, potential restaurateurs ask if spaces are outfitted for ventilation hoods, a requirement for cooking hot food, Stumpf said. And when a restaurant closes, it usually isn’t closed for long before another take its place.
Restaurants often need only be in the right place with good food to receive the numbers of people looking for food between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.
But restaurant owners say capturing sales all day long takes synchronicity with events and active marketing to let people know there’s something to do when the sun goes down.
In early 2015, there were about 330 apartment units constructed around 2010 or newer, said Stumpf, citing downtownfresno.org, costar.com, gvurban.com and public tax records. Since then, another 250 have been added. Before that, though, after 5 p.m., the streets emptied.
“Its getting better now, but in 2003, there was absolutely zero people living Downtown,” said Joe Lanfranco, owner and executive chef of Cosmopolitan Tavern & Italian Grill. Opened in the early 1900s, the Cosmopolitan stopped serving dinner in the ‘50s, resuming the service in 2003, a number of years after Lanfranco came to the business.
Lanfranco finished culinary school in the ‘90s and wanted to expand to dinner, despite not having the population walking around to justify keeping the kitchen open at their old location on Fresno and G streets.
They’ve now moved to Ventura and O streets, displaced by high-speed rail construction.
He wanted to be able to put his cooking chops to use, and it wasn’t enough to just do lunch.
“When you have a huge capital investment, it needs to make money all the time, you can’t just survive off one service,” Lanfranco said. “You have to remain viable all day.”
The Cosmopolitan relied on regulars they’d established in their decades of operation.
“Without being a business with name recognition it would have been very, very difficult to break into this market,” Lanfranco said.
On Van Ness Avenue, the Anaya family owned a property beside the spiral-parking garage that was changing hands every few months, according to Jackie Anaya, operator of Joe’s Steakhouse. They wanted something more consistent, so in 2005, they opened the Western-themed steakhouse. In May, they stopped serving lunch so they could focus on dinner, but it took almost 14 years to build a clientele to justify the move.
Before housing came to Downtown Fresno, traffic was “scarce,” Anaya said. What it did have, though, was hotels full of people heading out to Yosemite and the Sequoias. And being one of the few restaurants open at night at that time, the owners of Joe’s Steakhouse felt they could corner the market of travelers looking for local fare at night.
“We have huge tourism that travels through Downtown Fresno and there really wasn’t anywhere for those people to eat.”
Lunchtime was easy, but at night, their campaign was pro-active, coordinating with hotels and leaving menus in rooms.
GG’s Food Factory on Kern Street last week began serving food as late as 8 p.m. to capture what owner Tigran Hovhannisyan feels is a lot of potential sales considering the absence of options after 5 p.m.
“A lot of people wanted to see if we can be open for dinner, so we thought about it and here we are, we’re open for dinner,” he said.
Ian Cookson, co-owner of Libelula near the Crest Theater, said he needs to see more people downtown before committing to being opening every night.
He and co-owner Kimberly Sabaria are considering dinner service once a month. Cookson has scheduling conflicts that also make dinner difficult. But the unique food served at Libelula lends itself to a dinner service. The farm-to-table ingredients and fresh pasta he likes to make don’t necessarily sell at lunch.
Restaurants also operate on lower margins during lunch, Cookson said.
At Joe’s Steakhouse, sandwich or burger orders average $10-12 a ticket, where dinner might average $32-40 per person.
Libelula has evidence that dinner for them does work. They’ve been open alongside Art Hop, which takes place the first Thursday of the month. He says they’ll turn the tables over two or three times in only a couple of hours —doing as much business as a busy lunch service, Cookson said.
Many of the people who come down can’t make it downtown for lunch or breakfast.
“As much as you might want to be here for dinner service, that doesn’t mean everybody else is going to be in the downtown area,” Sabaria said.
Events are a force in downtown, bringing people in droves to the area, and restaurants have to be ready to accept them.
Anaya says on event nights, they are often fully booked, with walk-up customers having to wait 20-45 minutes.
Being near the Fresno Convention Center, Lanfranco with the Cosmopolitan said play season is when they are busiest. And with “Hamilton” announced for the 2019-20 season, it’ll bring people from all over the Valley.
But many people’s limited knowledge of Downtown Fresno and their perceptions of safety can isolate one part from another.
Parking is key, Lanfranco said. When they purchased their building, securing the 63 spaces he has now was paramount.
“They don’t want to have to park in a parking garage and walk five blocks to where they’re not exactly sure,” he said.
Breweries like Tioga Sequoia Brewing Co. or Zack’s Brewing can get a couple hundred people on a weeknight, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to other parts of downtown.
“The brewery may just be two blocks away but not a lot of people know that,” Anaya said. So they act as concierge for their guests, giving them pamphlets with their bill to let them know where else they can go.
“We really only have one shot to show these people what our city is all about,” she said