Dewz takes big risk in giving up its hot corner

08/16/2007 12:00 AM

08/16/2007 9:53 AM

The oldest adage in business is "location, location, location."

By moving her restaurant from the downtown's most prime — and soon to be even more prime — corner, Dewz owner Judy Aspesi is gambling that the theory is obsolete.

Location?

Her entry and windows offer a great view of the new Gallo Center for the Arts on the opposite corner of 11th and I streets. Scheduled to open late next month, the center brings a promise of business for downtown eateries, almost all of it in the evenings.

Location?

There's a parking garage practically across 11th Street, and another1½ blocks away at 12th and H streets.

Location?

Her restaurant also is directly across I Street from the courthouse park, which has its benefits. A few weeks ago, when Sen. John McCain visited the valley, he met with area law enforcement officials at Dewz before walking across the street to meet with the media in front of the war memorial in the park.

And we'll throw in a bonus location:

Dewz is the restaurant nearest the courthouse, and does a heavy lunchtime business.

So why is she willing to defy conventional thinking by moving her restaurant from the remodeled Courthouse Plaza Building several blocks away to 1505 J St.?

Her 10-year lease will soon expire. She refused to agree to a new one that would have tripled her current rent.

The rent at the new place will be higher than what she's paying now.

"But not triple," Aspesi said. Beyond that, she said, "I'm not going to comment on anything with my landlord."

Randy Brekke, leasing agent for the vacant spaces in Courthouse Plaza, said third-floor office space will rent monthly for about $1.85 per square foot, while the asking price for downstairs space is $2 per foot.

None of the upstairs offices are leased yet. Downstairs, Dewz is accompanied by a bail bonds office. The building soon will get a Firkin & Fox restaurant and pub, and one ground-floor space remains available.

Brekke said he was not involved in the negotiations for renewing Dewz's lease, but already has had an inquiry about the 4,000-square-foot space.

Mark Smallwood, owner of the Harvest Moon eatery a block away, said $2 per foot is way too much for any Modesto restaurant to pay.

"Judy's a good businesswoman," Smallwood said. "I don't think she's doing this out of emotions. I think she's doing it because she probably thinks she has to for survival."

Still, with the Gallo center about to open, how difficult is it to surrender the downtown's prime restaurant spot to someone else?

"It's very easy," Aspesi said. "When we moved here 10 years ago, the Gallo arts center wasn't even a dream. Before we moved to this place, lots of other restaurants had come and gone. We put our heart and soul into it."

Carmen Sabatino opened his City Limits restaurant in what was a gift shop in the L.C. Black Building in 1989 and ran it until selling in 1995. It sold once more, with all of the restaurants struggling at a time when Modesto's downtown was just beginning to emerge from its nightlife dormancy.

By the time Dewz opened in September 1997 — joining Tresetti's and Harvest Moon by staying open evenings — the State Theatre had reopened and was drawing crowds. The Brenden Theatre complex debuted in April 1999, with other restaurants and clubs following.

Now comes the Gallo Center for the Arts, a meatball's throw away from Dewz. Yet, Aspesi is walking away — about five blocks to the north.

Her new building, which housed Restaurant 15-0-Five, will have more tables and fewer parking options. It will offer post-dinner exercise for those who decide to hoof it over to the performing arts center in time for the opening curtain. And it will mean a longer walk for downtown workers on their lunch breaks.

Other restaurants within four blocks of hers have gone under, including Oceana and Nosh. And Momo's recently became the latest in a string of restaurant failures at 924 15th St., while prime spots at the corner of 10th and I streets also sit vacant.

Aspesi has the faith and confidence to defy the adage.

"I know the Gallo arts center is going to be fantastic, but our customers are going to come," Aspesi said. "Most of the people who came in for lunch (Wednesday) said, 'Congratulations. We're following you wherever you are.' I don't think the location will matter."

She'd better hope so.

jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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