In the early days when soul food restaurant Reign was red-hot, it almost seemed to Gerry Garvin that chickens could fly.
"We'd get 75, 80 orders of fried chicken a night. A night," said Garvin, inaugural executive chef at the Beverly Hills supper club, who now owns G. Garvin's on West 3rd Street. Reign was launched by National Football League standout Keyshawn Johnson in 1999. The crisp, golden poultry parts virtually flew out the kitchen.
Although chicken -- a staple in any self-respecting soul food spot -- remains popular at Reign, these days the restaurant has a sparser crowd.
In the Los Angeles area, where scores of smaller, neighborhood soul food diners prosper, Reign is the third upscale Southern-inspired restaurant in less than four years to run into trouble. Its two most prominent predecessors are closed -- Georgia, on Melrose Avenue, was shuttered in 2000 after almost seven years, and Shark Bar on La Cienega Boulevard closed in 1999 after only 20 months.
With its current problems, which include a messy court dispute that has embroiled Johnson and others, some wonder if Reign will be next.
Johnson's partners blame the thinning crowds on the legal fight -- now before the state Court of Appeal -- which stems from Johnson's attempts to sell the restaurant and its property last July. But they also acknowledge that there were many challenges running an eatery in one of the most expensive areas of Southern California.
In other parts of the U.S., especially the East Coast, upscale Southern restaurants have done well for extended periods. Jezebel's in New York is celebrating its 20th anniversary, and B. Smith's in Washington will mark its decennial next year.
"I do not know whether there is a real market in this town for upscale Southern cooking," said Brad Johnson, who, along with former National Basketball Assn. star Norm Nixon, founded Georgia in 1993. "I can't answer that question."
To be sure, many new restaurants fail. Chicago-based consultant Ron Paul, president of Technomic Inc., said the restaurant industry "has the highest failure rate of any form of retailing."
And, "if it's an upscale restaurant, the chances of success are limited at best," said Bob Spivak, owner of the Grill on the Alley in Beverly Hills.
Keyshawn Johnson had a vision for Reign.
"He wanted to bring together mainstream with African American food," said Jerome Stanley, a minority owner of the restaurant and Johnson's agent. Johnson, a former USC wide receiver and member of the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, could not be reached for comment.
"We were trying to create a fine-dining restaurant in soul food," Stanley said. Reign's menu carried appetizers for $11 and entrees as high as $29.
Johnson specifically wanted a Westside location, "where hot restaurants are located," and where he could attract a wide demographic, Stanley said.
Their search took them to 180 N. Robertson Blvd. Inside, the airy dining hall -- with soaring ceilings, blond wood booths and candle-lighted tables dressed in starched white linens -- seemed light years away from the tiny round-the-way spots serving similar fare in South Los Angeles.
Its 7,000-square-foot expanse played host to such celebrities as actress Jasmine Guy and basketball great Earvin "Magic" Johnson, to Grammy and Emmy parties and to sell-out crowds during the 2000 Democratic National Convention.
High Costs of Location
But with a Westside location came Westside costs. Ash Narayan, one of Keyshawn Johnson's attorneys and a minority partner, said the initial outlay was $2.4 million -- $1.6 million for buying the building and about $800,000 for the fixtures and equipment. In South Los Angeles, buying a similarly sized space in a new development might cost as little as $900,000, depending on location, real estate brokers said.
"With soul food, if you open a restaurant outside of the traditional area that we are in, the costs of operating that business are going to be extremely high," said Adolph Dulan, who helped found Aunt Kizzy's Back Porch in Marina del Rey. Opened in 1985, it is one of the region's oldest soul food spots outside of South L.A., but one that retains a down-home feel -- and prices.
"The rents, the size of the operation, labor.... The overhead is substantially higher than if you opened in the so-called black community," he said. "To make a profit, you have to raise the price of the food and drink."
For many African American customers, Dulan and others said, that sets up an immediate comparison to costs at the corner soul food shack.
"They think, 'I can go get chicken for $7 or $8,' " noted Dulan, who left Kizzy's and now owns the Soul Food Kitchen, a neighborhood-style diner in Inglewood. "The issue is the perception, in terms of the costs."
Narayan said a shortage of customers was not the problem. He put Reign's sales for 2002 at about $1.5 million. For 2001, sales were about $2.5 million, up from about $2 million in 2000.