Built To Last: What You Can Learn From America’s Oldest Restaurants

Many restaurants stay on a strict schedule of remodeling every 7 years to stay current and fresh. Some restaurant companies even plan to completely shut down and re-concept periodically in order to always be new. While being fresh-faced and trendy is definitely one path to success, especially in the era of Instagram, there is another way.

If you want to build a restaurant that will last and be successful for decades, you can learn a lot by studying the oldest restaurants in America. There are a surprisingly large number of restaurants that are still around from the 19th and even 18th centuries. They can be found all over the country, from Connecticut (1776) to Louisiana (1840) and Iowa (1852) to California (1849).

So what’s the secret and what do these places have in common?

  • Strong Ties to the Community – Restaurants are gathering places for the community and the best become part of the community that they are located in. Darren Carr, owner of the Lawrence and Bon Ton in Atlanta, says “a restaurant is a conversation with the neighborhood.” The oldest restaurants exemplify this. Often the community will rally around a restaurant when it falls on hard times. Breitbach’s Country Dining has burned down twice and been rebuilt twice by its community.
  • Affordability – Prices have definitely gone up since the 1800s but a satisfying meal should never be out of reach of the working people of a community. Though there are certainly some long-lasting restaurants with luxurious prices, the majority of them serve simple food at reasonable prices.
  • Continuity – There is something wonderful about being able to sit down for the same meal that you enjoyed 30 years ago. The oldest restaurants offer this connection to history by not changing their décor and menu to keep up with fashion. They serve the same basic menu in the same setting that they always have.
  • Family – Family-owned and operated restaurants have often been able to withstand the test of time. Upholding the tradition and values of their founders and a built-in lifelong training program for the next generation of owners are a hallmark of family-owned restaurants.

To be sure, there is a good measure of luck involved in a restaurant that has operated continuously for over a century, as there is for any restaurant. If you follow the example set by these restaurants, yours may cross that threshold into being a community institution and still be serving happy customers in 2219!


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