Monday, January 28, 2008

Popular restaurant is nutted by reality (TV)

If ever a restaurant seemed to be a sure thing, it was The Hidden Café, the lone eatery in the exclusive Pacific Palisades Highlands housing development, high above town and connected to Sunset Boulevard only by a single, dangerous 2 1/2 mile road.

Mary Autera opened the place in 2002, and was a success from the start, with a big menu and portions. But while an injury in 2005 laid her up for close to a year, lazy employees and rotten service cost her customers in an area with no competition and began a slide that the local Palisadian-Post newspaper reports led to The Hidden Café shutting earlier this month.

The twist? The coffin lid was nailed shut by reality television. It seems Mary signed away her future to a TV show she hoped would turn things around. If you ever felt sorry for the kids who sign away their flimsy careers to American Idol, read this from the Post:

“In an effort to woo customers back, she allowed The Hidden Cafe to be part of a reality-show pilot in July (207) that pitted two restaurants against each other. In two days' time, experts had changed the decor and downsized the menu from 76 entrees to 14. Autera had to sign a contract that she would make no changes for six months.

“Unfortunately, the pilot never aired, and Autera regrets ever participating in the venture. 'Since I was out of touch, I didn't trust my own instincts,' she said. The large portions and the comfort foods associated with the cafe had been taken away by the 'experts.' Instead of bringing customers back, which was her hope with the new menu, business grew worse.

“In December, when the reality-show contract expired, Autera brought her old menu back, but by then it was too late. 'We were sunk. We had taken on too much water and we were buried in bills. It was a matter of just six months. You can buckle in that amount of time. I was really banking on the renovation and the show, and the whole thing flopped.'”

The good news? Uh, there is no good news.

“In the process, Autera lost her Santa Monica home and her 401(k). Her fiance, Mark Stimson, is now fighting liver disease. But she tries to stay upbeat. 'I have strong faith. I know it will come out all right,' she said. ' It's so sad. I'm preventing myself from saying it's unfair.'"

And here were thinking those Gordon Ramsay types could do no wrong…

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