When Alex and Wendy Caisse opened Buck’s Naked BBQ at 50 Wharf St. in 2012, they were fairly confident the Portland restaurant would be as successful as their original Freeport location. Although the space was a whopping 8,000 square feet – far from what is considered the “sweet spot” for restaurant square footage in the Old Port – it was comparable to the space they had in Freeport.

But even after chopping off more than 2,000 square feet of space for another business, the couple still lost money every year and had trouble making the rent, which was roughly $11,000 a month, according to Wendy Caisse. She can joke about it now.

“I remember waking up in a bloody sweat, freaking out about it,” she said.

That rambling brick building is one of several in the city that have doubled as restaurant graveyards over the years – places where diners get whiplash watching a new restaurant open every couple of years or so. In the case of 50 Wharf St., Havana South opened in 2010 only to close two years later. Buck’s lasted four years, closing with a year left on its lease. Most recently, Mark’s Sports Bar stayed open just a year.

Yes, restaurants have high failure rates. In a typical year, roughly 60,000 restaurants open and 50,000 restaurants close, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. New restaurants may be under-capitalized, be poorly managed, serve up so-so food or face daunting competition in certain parts of the city, all of which can cause them to close quickly and lead to high turnover. But to outside observers, it sometimes appears as if these locations just have bad mojo.

H.G. Parsa, a University of Colorado professor who tracked restaurant outcomes in five U.S. cities and published a series of papers on the results, says about 60 percent of restaurants fail in their first three years. “High rent is a problem in every downtown,” he said. “Real estate is prime, expensive. That’s half the battle. No. 2 is the labor.”

Because of seasonality, he said, the restaurant failure rate is even higher in northern states like Maine. And the number of restaurants per capita in a community is important as well. The more restaurants that open, the more they attract: Parsa calls it the “fatal attraction.”

“Too many (restaurants), they compete with each other,” he said. “Somebody’s got to go.”

A closer examination of what’s happened in some of the high-turnover restaurant spaces in the Old Port – the heart of Portland’s huge restaurant scene – show that, although each space and each occupant has its own story, challenges like size, location and rising rents played into the succession of relatively short stays. For those that have broken the pattern, it’s taken a special ingredient.

Peter Vermette works inside 50 Wharf St., where owners have been dividing the space into smaller units. A sandwich shop and a whiskey bar will be among the new tenants.

First, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s not unusual for an Old Port restaurant space to be leased to another restaurant after it closes, according to Peter Harrington, a partner and associate broker at Malone Commercial Brokers who has handled many restaurant leases in the Old Port. The buildings there are old, and once they’ve been retrofitted for restaurant use – adding a kitchen and the required venting systems – they tend to remain restaurant spaces, he said, and command more rent.

But there are a few places that stand out for their high turnover. In addition to 50 Wharf St., there’s 100 Commercial St., which over the years has housed Oolong, Gaucho’s, Spread, Ebb & Flow, and now Solo Italiano. Back in 2000, the space at 90 Exchange St. was filled by Rachel’s Wood Grill, followed by Bandol, Greek Corner, Little Seoul, Thai 9 and Crooners & Cocktails, which shuttered earlier this year. The space has now been taken over by Eaux, a food truck that transitioned to a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Tom Yordprom, now the owner of Yordprom Coffee Shop on the West End, opened a Thai restaurant called Siam City Cafe at 339 Fore St. in 2001. That was followed by Shima, Sebastian’s, Apsara, Compass Rose, Mainely Wraps and Mami, the Japanese restaurant that’s the current lease holder.

A MIX OF ISSUES

At 339 Fore St., a combination of factors appears to be at work, including a location that in its earlier years wasn’t great for a restaurant, then rising rent as it became more desirable. Yordprom said his restaurant went through three different incarnations in eight years, but he still couldn’t make it work. It started out as an informal place called Siam City Cafe, then became Siam Restaurant, with a higher-end menu. Next came a complete renovation, and the restaurant was renamed Siam Grill and Martini Bar.

Yordprom kept the place open seven days a week and ran it himself because he couldn’t afford line cooks with the profit he was making. The most he ever made during a lunch service, he said, was $250.

Yordprom’s assessment of the problem? “It was like a dead spot,” he said. Tourists and downtown workers, for some reason, did not want to venture past Market Street.

By the time Yordprom closed the restaurant in 2008, Old Port restaurant space was being leased at a premium. The building sold, he said, and when his lease expired, the rent doubled.

The oven serves as the heart of the kitchen at Solo Italiano, the latest in a long line of restaurants to occupy the space at 100 Commercial St. in Portland, a location known for its high turnover rate. In recent years, previous tenants have included Oolong, Gaucho’s, Spread and Ebb & Flow. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

The restaurants that followed all had their own reasons for their short stays. The owner of Sebastian’s tried to sell the business but couldn’t. Compass Rose opened in 2013 and lasted only one month because chef/owner Tony Kratovil fell seriously ill.

Mainely Wraps experienced a number of problems in the space, according to Naphtali Maynard, who owns three of the sandwich shops with her husband, Rich. Those problems included finicky plumbing, rising rent and “a tough relationship” with the property manager. The location managed to make $30,000 a month, which was a low average for the Mainely Wraps stores, Maynard said, but it at least gave them a little profit.

“It’s such a cute space,” she said. “I love that space.”

After closing the Fore Street location, they opened a store in South Portland, in a space that has turned out to be much more lucrative.

Austin Miller says he and Hana Tamaki, his partner in business and life, had a fleeting moment of worry about the history of the space when they signed the lease for their Japanese restaurant, Mami, but got over it quickly. The building already had a hood vent and a walk-in refrigerator, two critical pieces of equipment they couldn’t afford without taking out a loan. And the comparatively reasonable rent appealed to them.

“It’s not crazy cheap,” Miller said, “but it’s definitely cheaper than other stuff we looked at.”

Mami is doing well now, for several reasons. Before it was a restaurant, Mami was a food truck, so Miller and Tamaki brought their brand, and a built-in following, with them to their brick-and-mortar location. They’re continuing to use the truck for catering, which helps pay the bills. Miller also believes the consistently good food combined with the casual style of the restaurant fills a need in the Old Port.

At 339 Fore St. in Portland, Mami is thriving where a half-dozen restaurants in recent years had not. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Miller and Tamaki are also trying to keep labor costs down by working many of the kitchen shifts, especially the slower ones, themselves – a challenge, considering they have two small children.

“I’m OK with working alone if it means we can pay an extra bill,” Miller said.

Miller said he’s noticed there’s still a lingering bit of reluctance on the part of diners to travel past Market Street.

“There’s always problems,” he said. “You just have to put your best foot forward with every issue: How do I get on top of this? How do I not let it affect me? Every day there’s going to be something. You’ve just got to keep going.”

A MATTER OF SIZE

Size plays a role in the high turnover linked to 50 Wharf St. and 100 Commercial St. The average retail space in the Old Port is 1,300 to 2,000 square feet; 50 Wharf was originally 8,000 square feet before being cut back to 5,700 square feet, and 100 Commercial St. is also north of 5,000 square feet.

“Size is important,” said Harrington, the Malone Commercial Brokers associate. “There’s only so many restaurateurs who can create demand for a 100-plus seat restaurant. Scales is a good example. They have over 100 seats, and they’re crushing it.”

“Size is important,” says Peter Harrington, above, an associate with Malone Commercial Brokers. The 8,000-square-foot space at 50 Wharf St. in Portland – a challenging venue for many restaurateurs who tried to make a go of it – has been divided into smaller units. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

The owner of Havana South, Michael Boland, spent $500,000 renovating 50 Wharf, located in a building that’s more than 140 years old.

“While we did respectable revenue, the space was large and so were the corresponding costs, including utilities and rent,” Boland told the Press Herald when the restaurant closed in 2012.

Buck’s Naked BBQ couldn’t make it even after space was carved out for an adjacent bar, Oasis. “We did good sales there,” Caisse said, “but it couldn’t carry the rent cost, and it was because there were too many square feet.”

Why, then, has the Freeport location been successful? It’s got 8,800 square feet, and the rent is $13,000 a month. Caisse says it’s because the customer base in Freeport draws from surrounding towns. “Our clientele is mostly families, and families want to park in a parking lot right outside the door and walk in,” she said. “They don’t want to drive around the city with a bunch of kids going crazy in the minivan.”

Caisse notes that smaller restaurant spaces are trending now. Young professionals, she said, like the feeling that they’re in an establishment that’s so popular they’re literally rubbing elbows with other guests.

“Chain restaurants are pulling in their four walls and they want to be under 5,000 square feet now,” she said. “You’re going to need less labor, and there’s a lot of hours in restaurants where you’re not going to be at capacity. People don’t mind waiting because they have their stupid phones to look at while waiting for 25 minutes for a table.”

Mark Deane, owner of Mark’s Sports Bar, ended up assuming the final year of the Caisses’ lease. The bar did well, he said, but business slowed down considerably when there were no sports events happening.

“I thought I would be able to do it,” he said, “and it was too big a space.” He decided not to renew the lease.

The location has now been broken up into three spaces. Hero’s Subs in Lewiston has committed to about 1,000 square feet on the Union Street side, Harrington said. An upscale whiskey bar that also serves food is taking another 1,500 square feet or so.

Paolo Laboa, co-owner and chef, brings Old World charm and authenticity to Solo Italiano, the latest restaurant to house the generous space at 100 Commercial St. in Portland. The venue’s success suggests the location’s “curse” may be broken. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Brian Hanson, a restaurant consultant and owner of Maine Business Brokers, is opening the whiskey bar, called Independent Ice Co., with two partners. The bar will serve premium whiskeys, bourbons and scotches, and have seating for 40 to 45 people. Its target opening date is mid-July.

LARGE AND IN CHARGE

Large spaces can be successful sometimes. After Angelo Ciocca’s first restaurant at 100 Commercial St., Ebb & Flow, didn’t catch on, he found a new chef and a new concept that appears to be working, even though the space is over 5,000 square feet. On a Tuesday night in April – usually a slow time – the 125-seat restaurant served 95 people. There can be waits for a table on weekends, even during the off-season.

Ciocca, a first generation Italian-American whose family hails from a village called Ripi (about 60 miles south of Rome), is president of Nova Seafood, a seafood wholesaler. He originally planned to have a food hall in a Portland development that never got off the ground, and opened Ebb & Flow to get experience in the restaurant business. When that restaurant started struggling, he decided to go in another direction.

Ciocca heard that Paolo Laboa, an award-winning chef from Genoa, Italy, was working in California and interested in moving to New England. He called the chef, and the two hit it off. Since then, Ciocca says, happy customers have spread the word about Laboa’s food at the new restaurant, Solo Italiano. The restaurant has developed a good relationship with hotels down the street, which started recommending it to tourists and business travelers. Solo Italiano also encourages larger parties and family-style dining, a scarce amenity in downtown Portland.

The wood-and-brick interior at Solo Italiano, softened by warm colors and comfortable seating, is pleasant and inviting. Gone are the dark curtains from Ebb & Flow, replaced with blinds that can be raised all the way to let more light in. A small window has been added between the kitchen and dining room so diners can watch the staff at work. The pasta station is in the main dining room, in full view of customers, and a giant wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano sits on a side table, waiting to be cracked open.

General manager Jesse Bania says he thinks the restaurant has finally struck the right balance of good food, good service and a welcoming atmosphere.

“People crave authenticity,” he said. “Especially nowadays with such an excess of restaurants in the area, some diversification is important. We know our food is good. We know our space is beautiful. I think something was missing conceptually. I don’t think it was a curse, as people like to call it.”

Bania also points out that the restaurant has its own “signature dish” on the menu – pasta tossed with the pesto Laboa made to win the World Pesto Championship in Genoa in 2008. It’s become the restaurant’s top seller, he said, and photos of the dish make the rounds on social media.

Ciocca gives most of the credit for turning the space around to his chef, who is passionate about both food and his adopted city of Portland. He says it reminds him of Genoa. “The best sea urchin of my life I have here,” Laboa said. “The urchin here is amazing. They are sweet like candy.”

Labao also brings an extra ingredient to the table that helps fill the seats in Solo Italiano: Old World charm. He calls women “signora,” and gladly hands over recipes to customers who ask.

Ciocca thinks he and Laboa have finally broken the curse at 100 Commercial St., even though he doesn’t call it that.

“I don’t believe in curses or jinxes, so I really laugh when I hear people say that, whether it’s about this space or about anything else,” he said. “It’s about being persistent when it comes to life.”