The End of Merenda

Jody Denton at the Sagebrush ClassicIt’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.

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7 Comments

Filed under Restaurants

7 responses to “The End of Merenda

  1. Rumors have circulated for a while, now, and recently a guest assumed the closure of Merenda would be helpful to us.

    Nothing could be farther from the truth. We’ve always toured the neighborhoods around our restaurants, and can tick off the names of those which have shuttered over the years despite rave reviews and accolades.

    But a restaurant quickly becomes a part of people’s lives. It’s in their history, sometimes even in their genes, as young couples meet for first dates, then court, and then comes the night the whole kitchen watches, waiting for word from the gentleman to drop the rin in a glass of champagne, or put in or on top of a dessert.

    Couples then have children, who soon are coming back to the restaurant with with folks. We’ve seen children of longtime guests take their first jobs at Typhoon!

    Bo and I always feel terrible when an established restaurant closes. It affects a lot of people, a lot of lives, and it leaves a big hole in the community. We’re very sad to see it happen. It’s not a fate we’d wish on anyone. We can only wish Jody and his staff the best, and that 2009 is better for everyone.

  2. I feel sick inside.

    I don’t know what else to say.

    Thank you, Jody, for bringing such amazing restaurants to Bend, and for all of the memories that we’ll take from you.

    This is going to be a huge loss for Bend.

  3. Mike Millette

    I agree 100% and believe me this whole process has been extremely painful for me and the staff at deep and Merenda. But most of all I am more hurt by the negativety I have heard around town and seen on the web. No one can tell me Jody wanted this to happen. I wrote the following on a blog commentary shortly after Volo closed.

    “For those of you relishing in resataurants closing, do you know how many people the food industry employs in this town? How many of your neighbors are probably in the industry or grew up working in restaurants? Do you realize how closely tied the success or failure of restaurants in this town is to the OVERALL economy. Each time a restaurant closes, that is more jobs lost by people you may know. It might even be your own job.

    We should all want restaurants to succeed, because if they are succeeding our town is succeeding. In this time we need to be supporting each other and hoping that businesses make it, not dwelling in pools of misery.

    Let’s hope the Tribe of Negative Culture (TNC) dies a quick death in Bend. Let’s wish for all of our neighbors to succeed, because until the TNC can prove to me that negative attitudes and sitting on the sidelines will help us recover from this economy, I am going to support my neighbors and community!!!”

  4. Great article John, but I am so sad to see Merenda and Deep go. Jody was a true icon in the restaurant business in Bend (and beyond) and it is a true sign of the down turned economy when someone like Jody leaves.

  5. Chance

    The bottom line here is, this little town just isn’t ready for decent restaurants. I’m in the same boat as Denton here. Well, not in the financial area. But the fact that after a few years of living here, I’ve just realized that I can’t be without things like urban sprawl and tall buildings, expansive culture and an array of shows coming through town. Yes, I even miss the smog at this point. And yes, fine dining options. In a way, I’m envious of the Denton’s and their financial hardship–at least they are now free. I’m effectively stuck here until I find someone to take my house, because I can’t bring myself to be one of those people who just “walks away” from a credit obligation, but I can’t carry multiple mortgages and turning it into a rental property isn’t an option.

    When I came here, this city had nothing but the Jackalope. Since then, I’ve seen a lot of others come and fail; some good, some bad. Robbie J’s had great food, a French chef….and horrible service. Volo was awesome, but opened at the worst possible time. Beef ‘N Brew was surprisingly good, but couldn’t get past that stupid name.

    Merenda and Deep each had one fatal flaw: They attempted to charge large city prices for cuisine in a city where if you polled a lot of the residents, they’d say the nicest restaurant they’ve ever eaten at was Applebee’s. The amount of markup at these restaurants was simply too high for a culture built on “which place has Bend’s best hamburgers?”. I think the only “cuisine” level restaurants in the area that have figured out the formula to Bend are the Jackalope and Baltazar’s.

    Anyhow, sad to see em go–Merenda had a good wine list and Deep had good seafood. But it was easy to see neither of them would probably last.

  6. Well, I am personally disappointed because Merenda was the place I always wanted to go to when I visited my family in Bend. Tough times.

  7. Mike Byrne

    I just heard this sad news through a relative living in Oregon.

    I was a member of the Cascade Festival Of Music Orchestra from 2002-07, a marvelous event which went bankrupt last year.

    Experiencing Merenda was one of the best things about staying in Bend during those summers. I ate countless meals there. Often, I would join a group of musicians for a “happy hour” dinner just prior to a performance in Drake Park, inevitably returning for drinks and dessert after the concert. Merenda became a focal point for myself and a few of my closest friends at the festival. I’ll never forget those wonderful times! The wine flights were a highlight!

    Whenever I returned home to British Columbia after the festival, I would always look forward to the following August, when I could once again meet my friends at Merenda. Sadly, both the festival, and my favorite restaurant are now gone.

    Thanks, Jody Denton, for the good years of Merenda, and best of luck in the future!!

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