Jody Denton is closing Deep.
The executive chef and managing partner of Merenda, cornerstone of the downtown dining renaissance since it opened in August 2002, said his Japanese fusion-style restaurant will lock its doors after Wednesday night’s New Year’s Eve celebration, a victim of the economic recession.
Jody spilled the beans to me in a private conversation this afternoon. He seemed calm and composed, but perhaps a bit nervous, as we sat at a table on Merenda’s mezzanine level and discussed this turn of events. As we chatted, Jody dry-swallowed a couple of pain pills (“acetominaphen, aspirin and caffeine,” he explained) and fidgeted with the wrapper.
Deep opened to much anticipation and acclaim in June 2007. “I’m quite positive it will resurrect itself down the road,” the chef said, but he hesitated to elaborate. He said some of Deep’s staff, including chef Cliff Eslinger, will transfer to Merenda, which remains open … at least for now.
Patronage at Deep exceeded expectations during the last half of 2007. “Everything was feeling good,” Jody recalled. But then came 2008. Even Merenda, which had seen a continual rise in business every year since opening, was feeling the bite, with each month’s take 20% to 30% down from 2007. After meetings with his bankers, accountants and managers, Denton “adjusted and tweaked,” eliminating half of his salaried management team and running “as lean as can be.”
Two months ago, he determined that he would have to recapitalize Deep to carry the restaurant through 2009 into 2010. He presented a plan to his 12-member management team. “At the end of the day, the investor group was very supportive,” he said. “They wanted to make it work. But a couple of key individuals were unable to come to the plate after looking at everything.” By mid-December, it was clear that Deep was doomed.
“Doing business in this town, compared to my previous big-city restaurants, has been tough,” said Jody, a star chef in San Francisco and Dallas before he moved to Bend. “The reason is the seasonal nature of the business here. You make wads of money in three summer months, from the middle of June to the middle of September, but the rest of the year is a mix of months with red ink and black ink. At the end of the year, typically, all the bills get paid and your bottom line is a little bit north of zero.”
I love the sushi at Deep, but there are other places to get good sushi in Bend. Kanpai, on Newport Avenue, stands heads and shoulders above others. No one besides Deep, however, serves sliced Kobe beef that you can grill on a piping-hot river rock at your own table. And I love the dragon rolls and chilled sake cocktails.
Rumors about the impending demise of Merenda and Deep have been circulating throughout Central Oregon for months. Some weeks back, when Denton rolled a U-Haul truck to curbside at Merenda to store furniture as he changed his upstairs carpet, the Bend Downtowners Association and a local television station showed up in shock, thinking he might be pulling a vanishing act. Not true. “The rumors have been going on it seems forever, and they’ve never been true,” Jody said, shaking his head. “Not a single rumor that I ever heard was true, not one time.”
There is more to this story, by the way. But I’m sworn to secrecy until Thursday morning.