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From tavern to tacos — some restaurant owners look for luck with a redo

When West Town Tavern closed late last month after 11 years, no one expected the owners of the contemporary comfort food restaurant to open a casual taco spot in its place in less than a week.

It was even more surprising when it closed again two days later.

Co-owners Drew and Susan Goss aren’t the only restaurateurs who’ve hoped to turn things around with a new concept in an old space. Others around the city are also opting to transform everything but location to get more people in the door.

After opening to lukewarm reviews in October, River North eatery Baume & Brix also closed in July. But in as few as four weeks, owners Steve Tavoso and Jeff Krogh plan to have a brand new restaurant in its place.

“Baume, unfortunately, has never done well, never made any money. We’ve lost money. And [it] wasn’t well received by the public,” Tavoso says.

When a new menu in June did little to impress, Tavoso decided to close up shop, but not for long. The storefront will reopen as an extension of downstairs sports bar and lounge The Grid. “The upstairs will be more of a restaurant, a more traditional restaurant,” Tavoso says. “And then the downstairs is going to basically stay the sports bar and lounge.” Along with the new name, the space will also get a more affordable and extensive menu and some updates to the entrance and interiors to blend with the bar downstairs.

Already leasing or owning the storefront can help keep costs significantly lower than opening a new location, but even then “a restaurant rebranding is expensive and risky,” says Tim Calkins, a professor of marketing at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.

Highland Park restaurant Benjamin underwent a $50,000 switch-up, changing its menu, prices and interior design when it became Benjamin Tapas in May. The original fine-dining spot had ticket averages of $50, which chef and owner Benjamin Brittsan cut in half for the new restaurant. “It was just the wrong concept for the neighborhood,” Brittsan says, adding that it was “wasting time and money.”

Calkins says the Internet and social media have made it difficult to escape bad reviews. Once they’re up, they’re up for good, he says.

“You have to change the ambiance, you have to change the staff, you have to change the menu,” Brittsan says. “You have to start a new business, basically.” According to Brittsan, the restaurant, which encountered negative reviews for its high prices and snobby staff, has seen a 200 percent increase in patrons.

“When you’re starting over, completely rebranding, new name, new concept, you’re starting at base one,” says Courtney Reilly, account director at branding and design agency UpShift. Though that’s good news for restaurants that took a wrong turn out of the starting gate, it can be the wrong choice for those with loyal followings.

“We like to think if there’s a brand that already has some brand equity, that has maybe a loyal following but there’s maybe some tweaks that can be done, we want to try and retain what brand equity we can,” Reilly says, like North Center’s Chalkboard, which was open for seven years before closing unexpectedly in July. Chef and owner Gilbert Langlois announced that the location would soon be home to a new restaurant, Homegrown Cafe, featuring a new menu and new hours, which cuts dinner service.