Ultima Thule - The Darkness is coming...but there is hope
Updated: Dec 21, 2021
As the fall quickly approached and the tourists dwindled we had more time to discuss our business position; from our experience in the spring we could not afford to wait to make operational business changes in hopes that things would improve, when there was a clear pattern of behavior by the locals for going out. We decided through the months of September and the fall we would be open only on the weekends, this would reduce our costs for food and staffing and we came to the difficult decision that the Cantina was likely to be profitable only during the summer (my analysis from the previous year when we visited seemed to be accurate). We needed another opportunity that could cover the rest of the ten months we wouldn't be open. This also gave us some more free time to experience our new home, which we didn't get to before we opened, and go to some of the fall markets (think swap meet combined with a local carnival) and try out new dishes for the next summer. After the summer staffing challenges we would need to begin hiring for the summer months a lot earlier. Hiring from on the island was too risky, so we would need to look outside of Gotland and possibly outside of Sweden. Fortunately, like many places in the US with seasonally driven tourism there is also opportunities within the EU, to pull from other countries labor markets. Erik also felt he should re-visit his military roots by joining the Hemvarnet (similar to the National Guard).
The weather stayed pretty nice all through September and we decided to invest in our infrastructure and re-paint and fix the outside of the cabins. But as October began, the rain came and it started to get cold so we didn't get very far in the outside maintenance. We spent most of the weekday time freezing in the cabin (it was supremely drafty and not yet properly winterized) and stressing over our finances; which were quickly dwindling from our summer gains. Erik began looking for other restaurant opportunities on the mainland, specifically Stockholm. We had picked out several prospective locations in and around Stockholm and then planned to do a trip to check them out. We had also considered other opportunities on the island, but having been through the off season already we weren't confident that another island venture would provide the necessary year round income. Erik and I went back to the drawing board and thought of ways that we might be able to increase our summer volume by adding other food concepts to the Cantina.
With the dark days of fall upon us we planned some fun events hoping to generate excitement and interest in American fall traditions. For Halloween we made popcorn balls and candy apples 🍎 and dressed up in traditional Dia de Muertos sugar skull costumes. We advertised on social media that we were giving these away if you came by for a meal, with what seemed to be general interest. However on the day for dinner service we had only two guests arrive. It was so depressing we decided to close early and treat the employees to a night out in Visby at a Halloween Party to keep morale up. And yet that disappointment didn't deter us from continuing to try to get folks interested, we weren't giving up without a fight. When we announced Thanksgiving and the Mexican American Christmas we finally had the interest and reservations to support doing the enormous amount of work. We had over 60 people come for Thanksgiving and then around 200 (spread over three weekends) for the Christmas buffet. Unfortunately though it still wasn't enough financially to justify being open in the off season (even just the weekends).
As things were feeling desperate, it was time to plan the trip to Stockholm. We looked at the various prospective restaurants and shops available where we would expand our Mexican Cantina concept and narrowed the list down to three possibilities. This was also our chance to actually test the Mexican dining competition in Stockholm, which fortunately was not just different significantly to what we were doing, but also in our humble opinion fell short to our value proposition and authenticity. When we finally made an offer on the best option for us we were met with the biggest challenge of the Stockholm restaurant scene, the bostadsrättsförening (otherwise know as the Condo Owners Association COA). While the Stockholm community seems to like diversity in food, they also don't want that "smelly food" in their building. When it came for the approval by the bostadsrättsförening we were told that they decided to change the location to a boutique and not have a restaurant or Cafe there. We headed home with no new restaurant, which was a huge blow as we were running out of options. In early December an acquaintance introduced us to a restaurant owner in Visby who was looking to rent out a furnished restaurant without the high initial investment cost and reasonable rent. However, when we went to visit the location and met with the owner, it was clear that they did not intend to make that offer to us and instead was not going to be a good deal. Around the same time we got a cold call from another bostadsrättsförening (condo owners association) that they had a restaurant location available in Visby.
We held a meeting with the condo owners association in December to discuss the property and our concept, which we had decided would be different than our Cal-Mex restaurant in Gothem. Erik, having lived in both Texas and Florida was no stranger to American Smoked BBQ and I was hankering for some smoked ribs! Much like other ethnic cuisines in Sweden, authentic American Smoked BBQ had not really existed, although there were several "Americanesque" chains claiming authentic BBQ. The popularity of shows like Diners, Drive-ins and Dives was also gaining interest in Sweden and driving a demand for more authenticity. We had already spent part of the early fall experimenting with the smoking methods and felt confident this was a concept we could execute. We began the negotiations and settled an agreement with the association to rent the restaurant. The previous restaurant that they had there had unfortunately experienced a personal tragedy, which left the owners having to file for bankruptcy. Much like the IRS in the US, the goods inside were seized and then auctioned off. We were fortunate that we were able to locate the purchaser of the items and negotiate a fair price for the kitchen equipment inside. This was significantly advantageous for us as our start-up costs for the new concept would allow us to potentially maximize our returns earlier and pay-off the investment because we wouldn't have to shell-out in buying or leasing expensive kitchen equipment. As we began to spend more time in Visby though it was clear that the "winter" challenges Erik and I saw in Gothem were to be no different in Visby. The only period in December that garners any restaurant participation from the locals is the Christmas buffets (Julbord). While there were more people, (the city of Visby has around 27,000 year round inhabitants) it was not yet clear if their dining behavior would prove to be different enough to provide a consistent year round income or were we facing the seasonal bell-curve yet again? In either case in less than a year we were opening another restaurant. Here we go again!! To be continued...