Dallas McGarity sits at a low dining table covered in potted succulent plants, wood shavings and mounds of disheveled paperwork. He bounces between a phone call about getting some last-minute electrical issues sorted out and deciding what kind of ice cubes his customers will want.

“It’s insane, they come in all sorts of shapes,” he says.

When I visited last Wednesday, McGarity — who ran the kitchens at Volare and Marketplace — was one week away from opening his first restaurant, The Fat Lamb, a New American “neighborhood restaurant with creative cuisine and cocktails.”

Anecdotally, his new space is cursed: Restaurants that move into that corner of the shopping center at Grinstead Drive and Bardstown Road haven’t had much long-term success. The first, Uncle Maddio’s Pizza, made it four years, closing in 2015. Then Fontleroy’s, a midscale Southern restaurant, shut its doors in September after just 13 months.

But McGarity says he isn’t too worried.

“We have a great space here, it’s a very visible space,” McGarity says. “With the pizza joint, it was a little too dumbed down, I think, while Fontleroy’s was a little too high-end. So I want to hit that sweet spot in the middle.”

He says he wants to be the kind of place that serves “Jack Fry’s-quality food for less than what Jack Fry’s costs.”

McGarity gets the keys to his new space.Courtesy Dallas McGarity

McGarity gets the keys to his new space.

McGarity also hopes to have the longevity of Jack Fry’s, a staple in the city’s fine-dining scene originally established in 1933.

Recently, the subject of longevity for local restaurants has been on the collective mind in Louisville. Several — including Roux, America the Diner, Doc’s Cantina, Cafe Lou Lou and Fontleroy’s — have closed their kitchens almost back-to-back. That prompted some hand-wringing: Has the city hit its restaurant capacity?

Anthony Lamas is the head chef and owner of Seviche, which has been around for 11 years.

“Well, I have been saying we have hit a point where we are oversaturated,” Lamas says. “The great thing is there are people who love to eat in our city. The problem is, there’s just not enough to share.”

He — and others — say that means figuring out a formula to beat the odds and keep the courses coming. But how?

‘Churn in the Industry’

Let’s establish something here: When it comes to local restaurant survival, the numbers have never been great.

According to a study by Ohio State University on failed restaurants, 60 percent do not make it past the first year, and 80 percent go under within five years.

But Christin Fernandez, who works with the Washington, D.C.-based National Restaurant Association, says a certain level of fluctuation is to be expected simply due to the nature of the business.

“In an average year, about 60,000 restaurants open and about 50,000 restaurants close,” Fernandez says of the national landscape. “These closings aren’t all failures. For example, some may be owners shutting down one location to open a new location. But it does illustrate the churn in the industry on a regular basis.”

sevicheCourtesy Seviche


On a smaller scale — like in Louisville, where according the Kentucky Restaurant Association, there are a total of 2,234 restaurants — this level of turnover can seem tumultuous. But — take a deep breath, fellow food lovers — Fernandez says this is just normal industry ebb and flow.

That’s not to say there’s no cause for concern for restaurant owners. Competition is fierce, especially when most operate on profit margins of 4 to 6 percent.

Ryan Rogers is the owner of Feast BBQ, Royal’s Hot Chicken and the upcoming Bar Vetti.

“So, if you are going to be in the business, you really have to be aware of your numbers and your data,” Rogers says. “Making sure that your food costs are where they need to be, your labor is where it needs to be, you’re paying the rent that makes sense for your concept.”

Even the smallest misstep can eat into profits, and chefs agree that success can be boiled down to one word: consistency.

Consistency is Key

Lamas sits at the bar in the middle of Seviche. It’s mid-afternoon, and the place is empty and spotless. He gestures to the dining room, as if pointing to imaginary guests.

“When people come in, they want to have that dish that they remember, and it has to be the same,” Lamas says. “I feel that a lot — you know, you go somewhere and it’s not consistent.”

We’ve all had those experiences where we tell friends about a dish, but the next time you order it, it’s not the same. There’s something off. That’s what he’s talking about.

“That’s sad,” Lamas says. “I don’t ever want to hear people say that about my restaurant.”

Lamas says starting his restaurant at the right time with clear goals — after having worked in several professional restaurants across the country — was key to keeping up high standards.

“I think some people nowadays jump into it too quick and want to call themselves a chef and a restaurateur. But if you move too fast, you are setting yourself up for failure,” Lamas says. “Because longevity is going to be the best way of saying, ‘This is what we do, and we do it right.’”

That kind of consistency with the food, according to Lamas, has led to success for other area chefs, like Fernando Martinez (who owns seven local restaurants, including Mussel and Burger Bar and Taco Luchador) and Hammerheads and Game owner Adam Burress, a Seviche kitchen alum.

The standard-bearer, according to Dallas McGarity. Courtesy Jack Fry's

The standard-bearer, according to Dallas McGarity.

Mind the Locals

There’s also consistency of staff, which is difficult as local chefs struggle with back-of-house staff shortage. As Rogers succinctly puts it, “turnover is a killer for restaurants.”

But perhaps most importantly, says Lamas, there has to be a consistent customer base.

“Here you have a restaurant, you know, you can get some national praise and then that’s going to bring people from out of town,” he says. “But at the end of the day, it’s the people in your city who are going to support you day-in and day-out.”

Don’t get him wrong — tourist business is always welcome, he and others say.

In fact, according to Stacy Yates, vice president of communications at the Convention and Visitors Bureau, visitors to the city create an economic impact of $1.2 billion in total spending in the Greater Louisville area. The biggest part of that — nearly 40 percent — is lodging.

“The next-highest area is food and beverage, at 23 percent,” Yates says.

That’s about $276 million per year. But according to Lamas, even that’s not enough to keep local restaurants from facing night after night of empty dining rooms.

So considering the odds, how does McGarity feel about his prospects?

He says he’s planned for consistency as best he can: McGarity will be in the kitchen at The Fat Lamb cooking every night, and he’s bringing several of his chefs from Marketplace with him. That takes care of food and staff.

And the consistent customer base? Well, he says, that’s up to Louisvillians.