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Culinary Aftershocks

Mixx restaurant on Fifth Avenue once featured live jazz three nights a week, but the events of September 11 have stopped the music. Like other local restaurateurs, Deborah Helm—co-owner of Mixx in Hillcrest, as well as The Mission restaurants in North Park and Mission Beach—is watching costs closely after the economic downturn exacerbated by last year’s terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

“Financially, September and October were devastating—about 40 percent down,” Helm says. “Whatever happened on the news each day had a specific effect on that night’s business. At first, people—even when they would come in—were so depressed, and it was a real bizarre feeling for a while. Especially at Mixx, because when you go out to dinner, it’s about celebration and fun and having a good time—and I think people felt really guilty having a good time.”

Helm counteracted the drop in customer spending through such measures as adding an early-evening food-and-wine special Sunday through Wednesday. Business has since picked up considerably, though not to pre–September 11 levels. “I really feel like it’s coming back,” she says, “unless anything else happens.”

And the jazz musicians? “It seems like we’re back on track,” says Helm. “If it holds, we’ll get them back as soon as we can.”

Different restaurants experienced varying degrees of difficulty. David Cohn, who along with his wife, Lesley, owns the Prado in Balboa Park, Kemo Sabe and Corvette Diner in Hillcrest, Dakota Grill & Spirits and Blue Point Coastal Cuisine downtown and the new Indigo Grill in Little Italy, says Hillcrest restaurants with a local customer base remained relatively unscathed compared to the downtown restaurants more dependent on conventioneers and tourists.

In terms of business downturns, he says, “I’ve never seen anything so sudden and, in many ways, short-lived. Business had been slower [already], and the curve just bottomed out on September 11... The impact on the economy was worse in the dot.com crash, but that was much more gradual.”

During the slow period, the Cohn restaurants offered a few less-expensive specials, but—like other high-end eateries—were spared extreme strategies like cutting prices or staff.

“We’d rather keep as many people employed as possible, because the spiral effects of layoffs are just huge,” he says. “Eventually, laying people off hurts our restaurant, because then people aren’t spending money at the dry cleaner, so the dry cleaner’s not coming in for dinner; the supermarket guy not buying a new car means the car salesman’s not coming in. Everything’s interrelated.

“I think the important thing is for people not to panic,” Cohn adds. “This is a terrible tragedy, of course, but the real tragedy is for the families [of the September 11 victims]. The tragedy we see in terms of business dropoff has to be kept in perspective.

“We’re looking toward 2002, not back at September 11. I’d rather be in San Diego than in any other city in the country in 2002 because our economy is so diversified,” says Cohn, who’s also the incoming chairman of the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau. “September 11 didn’t take away our great weather or our great attractions or all the other things we do so well. This is a great time to be getting into business, as strange as it sounds. You have to be logical and conservative about it, but I think now’s a very good time.”

In fact, Cohn will open a new restaurant in the coming months. Gaslamp Strip Club—where patrons can cook their own meat dishes on indoor barbecue grills—is assuming the site of Cohn’s former Tupelo eatery.

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