It’s the end of the world as we Central Oregon foodies know it.
Downtown Bend without Jody Denton? Isn’t that like pancakes without syrup? Peanut butter without jelly? Foie without gras?
It’s sad but true, and it’s a tough way for local restaurant lovers … and wine aficionados … to greet the new year: Denton, the celebrated executive chef and managing partner of Merenda and Deep restaurants, is leaving Central Oregon. And with him go his two restaurants.
“The question,” said Jody, “was, ‘How wise is it to keep feeding this thing when all it does is eat?’”
Denton closed Deep this morning. Merenda, which pioneered a fine-dining revolution in Bend when it was opened in August 2002, will close at the end of the dinner hour on Sunday.
“I’m more than a little frightened to imagine what the (culinary) landscape (in Bend) is going to look like a year from now,” Jody confessed.
So what happened? My story in this morning’s Bulletin newspaper (www.bendbulletin.com) goes into more detail on economic specifics — but essentially, patronage through 2008 dropped by 20 to 30 percent from each equivalent month of 2007. Denton and his management team waited for an upturn … “but starting last June, we realized it wasn’t going to get any better for a while,” he said. They came up with a plan to carry the restaurant through 2009. But then things got worse.
“What the plan didn’t assume, and I didn’t see, was that things would drop significantly again,” Jody told me. “I saw my great plan just go out the window. October, November and December have seen the bottom drop out of the Bend restaurant business. And everyone in town is feeling the same pinch.”
Denton approached his management team of 13 investors with a plan to recapitalize the business, based on long-range projections developed with an accountant to get through 2010. Most of the group was supportive, he said, but “one set of heavily invested was unable to go any deeper.” A small group of longtime Merenda employees forged a proposal to purchase Jody’s interest in the restaurant and keep it operating, but the Bank of the Cascades, which holds Merenda’s note, was unable to effect the transfer. He got that news on Tuesday morning.
“Even up to the last two weeks, I was really confident that I was going to pull it off and recapitalize,” Jody said. “But it didn’t work.”
A Texas native who owned three San Francisco-area restaurants before moving to Bend, Denton said he has had “several solid offers” to transplant his career to other cities, but he has not yet decided which to accept. “I’ll do what’s best for me and my family,” he said. “But it will definitely be outside of the state of Oregon. One of the things we realized (as we contemplated this move) was that, in our heart of hearts, we are city people. We enjoy major metropolitan areas.”
Jody and his wife, Michelle, have two daughters, 10-year-old Ana and 5-year-old Olivia, who was born in Bend. “Getting to this point has been stressful and difficult,” the chef said. “For my wife and myself, there was a sense of relief once the decision was made.”
Denton acknowledged “a great many business and life lessons that have come to me personally” during his years in Bend. “I am grateful that I had a very loyal staff. And I am really grateful to Bend for the loyal patronage the town has shown me over the years. I really felt welcomed as part of the community. I did my best to give back as best I can.”
Merenda is dead. Long live Merenda.