51 Lincoln Files for Bankruptcy
Heading into its 10th year, 51 Lincoln has a lot of debt, and Jeffrey Fournier is doing something about it. He filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy about two weeks ago, the chef/owner confirmed. The Boston Herald’s Donna Goodison broke the news this afternoon on Twitter, and Boston Restaurant Talk reported he heard such a rumor last week.
“What it means for us is we can restructure financially to be a healthier business,” Fournier says.
The bankruptcy process essentially freezes 51 Lincoln’s debts and gives the company time to work out agreements with its creditors, Fournier says, but at this point, he doesn’t know exactly how it will all play out. Goodison reported the restaurant is in the red between $500,000 and $1 million. Fournier wouldn’t confirm a figure, but he said it’s closer to the lower end of that reported range.
Fournier opened 51 Lincoln in 2006, after a career in Boston kitchens like Pignoli, Locke-Ober, Excelsior, and the Metropolitan Club of Chestnut Hill. The restaurant was on the forefront of bringing fine dining to the suburbs, with a focus on top-tier ingredients, innovative technique, and hospitality in Newton Highlands. A 2007 Boston magazine brief called Fournier’s first solo venture “a masterpiece.” It earned a couple of Best of Boston nods, landed on Boston’s 2011 50 Best Restaurants list, and has earned accolades from other local media.
“When we first opened, it was pretty much 51 Lincoln and Lumière out here in Newton doing finer food. There really weren’t a lot of restaurants on our model. We’ve seen an explosion of nicer restaurants. Particularly, Sycamore’s great, and Little Big Diner. I live in Newton and I’m happy to be able to go to those,” Fournier says. “But one of the biggest impacts were the developments at the Street, and across the street from that where you have Seasons 52, Cheesecake Factory, Brio, and things like that.”
That competition has created a dynamic where guests can choose a time to eat, as opposed to a restaurant to dine at, Fournier says. If people want to eat at 7 p.m., they will find a place to do that. “At both [51 Lincoln and Waban Kitchen], we’ve had a big reduction in people coming in to eat earlier or later,” he says. His restaurants weren’t turning over tables the way they budgeted for, he says, and “we got behind.”
“I kind of think of small, independent restaurants like 51 Lincoln as an arthouse movie theater,” Fournier says. “If you want it to exist, you have to come. People love what we do, but there’s a lot of noise out there about where you’re going to go to dine.”
In general, the margin on operations spending has tightened up considerably, he adds. “When you go back about 10 years, we didn’t have [budget] line items like OpenTable,” Fournier says. “You can imagine, if you have a couple bad snowstorms, or anything that gets in the way of service, it’s very easy to not hit your [target] number.”
That said, the bankruptcy filing is a step toward getting back on track, he says. And it won’t change the 51 Lincoln experience. “We’re still going to get produce from our rooftop garden, we’re still going to focus on charcuterie, we’re still going to change the menu every day and offer different specials,” Fournier says.
One piece of feedback he’s heard is that guests miss some of 51 Lincoln’s classic dishes, like miso-marinated salmon, and Cambodian amok, a shellfish curry, and he says he plans to rotate those in more often.
“Overall, there is a movement against finer dining. People like a lower price point, a little more casual kind of food overall,” Fournier says. 51 Lincoln won’t move away from its overall focus on fine dining, but it’s listening to its guests.
“It takes a fair amount of creativity to find a dish you can bring all those flavors together in and reach a price point people are comfortable with, and still pull off a dish that’s really great,” Fournier says. “That’s our challenge right now.”
51 Lincoln St., Newton Highlands, 617-965-3100, 51lincolnnewton.com.