MUSCATINE — What has been referred to as Muscatine's affordable fine- dining restaurant will close it's doors Friday night.
"It's so sad that it's closing," said DaBeet's Bistro and Wine Bar owner and chef Awad Dabit. "I still can't believe it."
Dabit said he informed his staff about a month ago to prepare them to find other work.
"But they stayed, which I appreciate," he said.
DaBeet's opened at 128 E. 2nd St. on Nov. 1, 2016 and in the beginning, was selling out nearly every night. Over time, issues downtown increased and customers decreased. Dabit, 38, said he has had a loyal group of local customers, but it ultimately wasn't enough.
DaBeet's hours were 5-9 p.m. Mondays and 4-9 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Most of his business lately has been from Quad-Cities visitors on the weekends. Construction and flooding, along with a lack of parking downtown, he said, contributed to a loss of business. It was a learning experience, he said.
"There's still a lot more to learn," he said, "but I learned a lot."
He tried to address factors he could to generate more business, such as changing the menu and doing more advertising. Dabit thought the price point, dishes around $12-26, may have been a factor and added a hamburger to the menu made from freshly ground meat, a homemade roll and his own ketchup recipe to compensate. Those efforts didn't work. He thought about opening only on weekends, but it would have been difficult to keep staff.
The bistro was Dabit's first business and he received a forgivable downtown improvement loan for $21,000 from the city of Muscatine. He is paying it back because he is not meeting the loan agreement, which required being in business for at least five years. Dabit moved to Muscatine from Palestine in 1999 and studied business at Muscatine Community College. He attended Northwest Culinary Academy in Vancouver in 2004 then traveled the length of Canada working in various five-star restaurants. Dabit returned to Muscatine in 2015, working in Sal Vitale's kitchen before opening the bistro.
He views Muscatine as his hometown and thought he was creating a restaurant the community wanted. Dabit said he couldn't pinpoint an exact cause for the closure, because when he had a good month, everything ran smoothly.
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But businesses and housing line 2nd Street, each competing for parking. He knew parking was an issue before he opened, but didn't realize how large the issue was. Combined with extensive construction and flooding downtown, and occasional events closing 2nd Street on the weekend, he said people couldn't always get to the restaurant.
"With any brick and mortar location, if people can't get to you, it's going to hurt," said Joel Youngs, regional director of the Small Business Development Center at Eastern Iowa Community College.
It's widely reported 90 percent of new businesses fail within the first five years. Youngs said some of the issues businesses face are with cash flow and having a safety net.
Forgivable loans, such as those offered by the city, can help provide a cushion for cash flow challenges, he said, but for long-term concerns or unforeseeable events, a healthy safety net is crucial. For an average restaurant business, Youngs said, about $0.60 of every dollar from sales goes to food, labor and consumable costs, leaving only $0.40 for everything else. Aside from having a thoughtful business plan, new businesses can contact SBDC for free assistance offered before challenges become overwhelming, he said.
"It's a lot easier for me to get you out of a 2-foot hole than a 14-foot hole," Youngs said.
Dabit is a chef. Though he's still honing his skills, the culinary art is his passion and he said the restaurant closing is not the end for him. If anything, it's been motivating, he said. He hasn't soured on the idea of being a business owner and the experience has made him want to open a new restaurant.
His plan is to have a new location for a 30-seat bistro determined by the end of the year, but choosing one in Muscatine is questionable. He said he doesn't know if there are enough people in town who want to support another fine dining restaurant, so he has his eyes on the Quad-Cities, offering an all-French menu. Later this year, he will travel to France to stage in a restaurant there. In the industry, staging is an unpaid internship or experience for culinary staff to learn new techniques.
Dabit said those with gift certificates should contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. To those who supported the business, Dabit said he is thankful.
"Support local," he said.