It's been a difficult year for the Austin food community

This has been a difficult year for the Austin food community, and I for one am very glad it's coming to a close. This column isn't filled with holiday cheer, but I'm hoping the act of writing these things down and sharing them will have the desired cathartic effect, and I can proceed into the new year with a lighter heart and more creative energy for positive stories. I've written more obituaries for friends, colleagues, and businesses in 2008 than in any other of my 15 years here. There have been heartbreaking suicides, unexpected heart attacks, deadly auto accidents, and a senseless murder. I wasn't acquainted with the two gentlemen who died this month – financial planner Charles Willis, a recent culinary school graduate who had contacted me a few weeks before his death with a story pitch, and Steiner Ranch Steakhouse general manager Chris Mar­tin, who was murdered by a disgruntled former employee. But within hours of each death, I was made aware of how few degrees of separation there had been between us by friends or acquaintances who knew and respected each man and were greatly saddened by their loss. Reporting regularly on the loss of local independent food businesses and restaurants is also hard, especially when readers beseech us to somehow save the failing business. While I'll grant that media coverage has the potential to influence people and events, I'm pretty skeptical about whether a newspaper story can change basic economic realities. (Ask the Perez sisters about this – two years of almost daily coverage of the Las Manitas/Marriott Hotel drama only served to delay the inevitable.) As a person who grew up around a family-owned store and then ran a small food business of my own for years, I have some understanding of the complex financial pressures that come with self-employment: There's no automatic paycheck at the end of the month until payroll (and its attendant taxes) is met and suppliers are paid, and it's often necessary to invest any profits back into the business; there are few benefits and rarely any health insurance for owners or employees. Given the rapidly escalating costs of everything from real estate to fuel and food products, coupled with an international economic crisis that's finally being felt here locally, I fully expect there will be more restaurant closures within the coming year before things begin to recover. And while it would be great to be able to save them all, I don't have any personal super powers that can successfully mitigate the financial realities. Just this past week, we received notice of two more closures. Longtime Mars owner Lori Simon spoke of her sadness at having to close the restaurant just before Christmas after a 15-year run. She explained that after a few months of deficits with no relief in sight, she had met with her financial partners and asked them to find a buyer for the restaurant, which they did. I understand her sense of loss, but I applaud her pragmatism (and good luck) in finding a buyer while the business is still viable rather than taking a chance on an eventual bankruptcy. Look for a group headed by Lamberts chef/partner Larry Maguire to open a casual seafood restaurant in the prime SoCo spot sometime after the first of the year. And we heard from Hill Country pastry queen Rebecca Rather reporting that she plans to close her Fredericksburg fine-dining outlet, Rebecca's Table, at the end of this month. Her popular Rather Sweet Bakery & Cafe is still going strong, but it seems she couldn't find enough qualified, reliable restaurant employees in the small Hill Country town to run both eateries simultaneously. We regret all the losses described above.

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Charles Wilson, Chris Martin, Charles Willis, Steiner Ranch Steakhouse, Chris Mar­tin, Perez sisters, Las Manitas, Mars, Lori Simon, Lamberts, Larry Maguire, Rebecca Rather, Rebecca's Table, Rather Sweet Bakery & Cafe

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