Editorial: Vicious circle at Allied ArtsLast week's cover story describing the sad state of the Allied Arts Guild makes one thing perfectly clear: Without a viable restaurant or another way to attract customers, the beautiful garden complex in Menlo Park is doomed to fail.
Allied Arts is a nonprofit whose main purpose is to support the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford. It's located in a residential neighborhood a considerable distance from downtown Menlo Park, and has relied on tour bus visits and a restaurant staffed by volunteers to attract enough customers to the dozen or so shops that lease space in the recently restored historic buildings.
But the decision earlier this year to end a long relationship with the Palo Alto Auxiliary, whose volunteer members operated the restaurant, has proven catastrophic to the business model advanced by the Woodside-Atherton Auxiliary, owners of the complex. And it has not helped that tour buses, filled with customers ready for lunch and a visit to the shops, have stopped coming, apparently after a redesign of the complex took away their turnaround space.
The latest bad news is that the auxiliary's plan to open a new restaurant fell through when a potential operator could not live with the restrictions imposed after a long legal battle with neighbors. Menlo Park restaurateur Jesse Cool had agreed to open at the complex, but pulled out when it became clear that she could not use the state-of-the-art kitchen at the complex for the bulk of her catering operations.
The auxiliary is continuing to search for a new restaurant operator, but with open hours restricted to the late morning and early afternoon, and other limits imposed on catering and the size of events, it will be a challenge to find any takers.
Another key part of the Allied Arts business plan — to attract corporate retreats and seminars to the beautifully restored buildings and grounds — has failed to materialize, in part due to the lack of a food purveyor at the site. Without the ability to offer meals to corporate clients or to private parties such as weddings or other family celebrations, it seems like Allied Arts is stuck in a vicious circle.
Without a restaurant or the ability to attract large parties, customers won't come to the artisan shops that define the character of Allied Arts. But under the current neighborhood restrictions, it appears that Allied Arts cannot attract a restaurant or the corporate clients that auxiliary officials had hoped would justify the more than $8.5 million it cost to rebuild and refurbish the grounds and buildings several years ago.
As we have often said in this space, it would be a tragedy to lose this treasure, built in 1929 as an artist colony. But without the ability to raise even modest amounts of money to support the children's hospital, we doubt if the auxiliary can sustain the effort. Already, rumors have surfaced on the Town Square forum of the Almanac's Web site that a property similar to Allied Arts is being shopped in San Francisco real estate circles.
If true, it would be a tremendous defeat for the thousands of volunteers who have spent countless hours keeping the doors open at Allied Arts. To lose it now, without making a serious effort to hammer out a better deal between the neighbors and the auxiliary, would be tragic.