Monday, June 24, 2024

Potato and kale cakes are served at True Bistro in Somerville’s Teele Square. (Photo: True Bistro via Facebook)

True Bistro in Teele Square will close Aug. 27 after 13 years, removing a rare spot for thoughtfully crafted, upscale vegan food in an area that’s more affluent and environmentally conscious than ever.

But the Thursday announcement via social media wasn’t exactly surprising. True Bistro was never bustling.

It wasn’t like the restaurant served mushy tofu or uninspired tempeh wings: True Bistro committed itself to providing high-quality fare. Head chef Stuart Reiter was described as “a bit of a perfectionist” by owner Linda Harrison during a Monday phone interview – to the extent that it was difficult to train new chefs to the same standard.

True Bistro was opened by Linda and her husband Michael in 2010 at 1153 Broadway in Teele Square, following brief runs by Soleil Cafe and Teele Square Cafe. The square – while outfitted with long-timers such as Rudy’s Cafe, Masala, PJ Ryans and Istanbul’lu – doesn’t quite live up to its potential. Renee’s Cafe closed recently, along with Broadway Eatery, and the slew of places that have come and gone where Happy Crab is now seems too many to count. Teele is fairly populated, even without the seasonal Tufts University traffic, yet no restaurant is really ever packed with people. Most opt to take the extra 10 minutes to stroll into Davis, where more options await.

True Bistro co-owners Michael and Linda Harrison. (Photo: True Bistro)

Even pre-pandemic and at the height of sales, True Bistro was never profitable, Linda Harrison said. She never paid herself a salary from the restaurant, and instead went back into architecture to make a living two years after True Bistro opened (after being laid off during the 2008 recession). “When I say it’s a labor of love, it sounds like a joke, but it’s not really,” she said. “I don’t know how restaurants make any money, actually.”

Revenue had been improving steadily since the pandemic, and the restaurant could and would have kept going if not for increasing labor costs and the end of Covid aid, she said. The price of food had increased as well, “but if labor had not increased so much and if we were just dealing with food cost increases, I think we probably could have raised prices enough to cover the food costs,” Harrison said.

While vegetarian offerings are increasingly common on menus locally, there have been a spate of recent vegan-restaurant closings, Harrison said.

True Bistro’s chefs have to be trained in strictly vegan fare, which can make for a tricky adjustment period, and turnover is high. While a revolving door of staff is not uncommon in restaurants – especially the front-of-house work that students typically do – high-skilled positions such as chefs are not as easily replaceable.

Every time a staff member leaves, expenses go up. “Every time we had to hire somebody new, we had to pay more money than what we paid anybody else. And then that meant we had to raise the salaries of the loyal employees too,” Harrison said.

“Two of our cooks who are married to each other are leaving the area. They’re moving to Providence because they couldn’t afford to buy a house around here. And our chef, Stuart, actually ended up buying a house in Worcester, because it’s so expensive around here,” Harrison said.

The average one-bedroom rental in Teele Square is around $2,350 a month, according to Apartments.com. The median sale price of homes in the square was $1.3 million in June, according to Redfin, and 10 houses sold in that month. Even five years earlier, the median price for a home was $900,000, requiring approximately a $200,000 annual salary to afford a 30-year fixed mortgage. While reported salary ranges vary, Glassdoor says the average salary of an executive chef in Somerville is less than half that: $91,536.

Holders of True Bistro gift certificates can use them before the last day of operation Aug. 27.

In their closing announcement, the owners said they hoped to see “our regular customers for a last goodbye.”

“We can’t thank you all enough for the support and love over the years, for choosing us to help celebrate life’s big moments, and for embracing the vegan dishes we’ve created and shared,” they said.