The bar and first floor dining room in the now-closed Doc's Cantina. | Photo by Steve Coomes

When word begins circulating that Doc’s Cantina closed today, don’t expect a lot of gasps of surprise among restaurant goers. Despite incredible potential, significant investment and smart leadership, the 10,000 square-foot Mexican restaurant, which opened last April, struggled from the start and never quite recovered well enough to survive its initial stumbles. Staff managers learned of the closure last night, while rank and file employees got the news this morning.

The partners in Falls City Hospitality Group are shutting the doors in order to retool and reopen the 1201 River Road location with a new concept before year’s end. What that’ll be hasn’t been decided, said Chip Hamm, one of four partners in FCHG. He said meetings begin this week to set a new course for the operation.

“We have some ideas, but since I’m not the concept guy, discussing that is probably best left to the concept guys,” Hamm said.

Regarding a rumor that Doc’s Cantina would reopen as a Latin-style nightclub, Hamm laughed and added, “Oh, that’s definitely not true. We scoped out a disco ball, but decided it was cost-prohibitive.”

One of several hand-painted murals inside Doc's Cantina. | Photo by Steve Coomes
One of several hand-painted murals inside Doc’s Cantina. | Photo by Steve Coomes

Understandably, such levity was rare in our discussion about why Doc’s Cantina failed. A lawyer whose career includes many years arranging real estate deals for Yum! Brands, Hamm was clear-eyed and concise about why this restaurant didn’t work.

“We didn’t execute; it’s as simple as that,” he said. “When you open with such poor execution, it takes a long time to get it back. And we just never got it back.”

The opening of Doc’s Cantina was easily one of the most anticipated of 2016 as future guests salivated over the promise of gussied-up Mexican street food served with a river view. Unfortunately, the opening was delayed by almost five months as FCHG’s partners made extensive and costly structural changes to the former Tumbleweed Southwest Grill location. When the unveiling drew near, they held a press conference showing the updates, and promised that there’d be no comparable tequila-lubricated party like it in Louisville.

But when the party started and the hordes of guests arrived, the hosts struggled to make them happy. Social media lit up with fiery criticism of service and food, and operators Brett Davis, Michael Ton and Steven Ton scrambled to resolve the problems. Amid days when as many as 1,000 guests arrived, operational glitches became so profound that the restaurant was closed briefly for retraining and a later menu streamlining. But while the situation seemed to stabilize, precious few of those early visitors returned to give the restaurant a second chance.

I was among several hundred invited to its soft openings and who saw its initial problems. The food was solid overall, but it came to the table erratically–yet such is expected during training meals. Service, however, was miles off the mark, and the deer in the headlights look on servers’ faces made clear that they lacked experience and were intimidated by the large crowds.

In my interview with Hamm this past weekend, I confessed I was untruthful in telling him “things were fine,” when he asked me, “How was everything?” after that fateful dinner. Though the evening’s experience fell short of expectations, I chose to say something encouraging rather than disparaging to a guy whose partners have always run good restaurants. I was fairly confident that they’d overcome those initial gaffes and explained that since soft openings are designed to create stumbles that can be corrected, I didn’t want to sound like some entitled critic griping about every concern.

His reaction surprised me, and I admit he was dead on.

“This is the crazy dance we all go through at soft openings,” he began. “If (you’re a customer) who has any experience at all, you know what good food and service are. … So what would be really upsetting is if someone looked at (the problems) and didn’t say what they were. It’s like when your friend has broccoli in his teeth. You don’t want to say anything about it, but friends need to say that.”

He was right, but as time wore on, it became clear that Doc’s problems ran far deeper than symbolic food in its teeth.

About mid-summer, FCHG corporate chef Jonathan Schwartz was made director of operations, and Davis and the Ton brothers stepped out of day-to-day workings to focus on their three other restaurants, Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse, Union Common (in Nashville) and Basa Modern Vietnamese. On the board for future FCHG openings are a Doc Crow’s in Cincinnati and J.Q. Public’s in Louisville, “which left them plenty to do,” Hamm said in a September interview.

The menu was streamlined again, recipes redeveloped and tightened for better execution, and judging by a late August lunch I had there, the food was significantly more focused and better overall than what I had at the soft opening.

But when this latest round of medicine prescribed for Doc’s recovery didn’t work quickly enough, the owners began preparing to close it less than six months after the piñata’s initial breaking. The thought of such a short run darkened Hamm’s voice briefly before he sighed and signaled a resolve to start over.

“Nobody likes to fail, but we did this time,” he said. “As Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) likes to say, ‘I’d rather learn by winning.’ But that didn’t happen.”

Hamm said the business is and will remain current with vendors and its landlord, Waterfront Development Corp., and that some of its employees will be absorbed into the staff at Doc Crow’s.

Asked whether initial staffing problems plagued the operation, Hamm largely dismissed the notion, saying it was his team’s responsibility to hire and train people properly regardless of their experience level.

“The short answer is there are no excuses,” Hamm said, before pausing and elaborating on the struggle to find good help. “And maybe the short answer is (it hurt) probably a little. But we don’t have labor issues at Doc Crow’s, where we’re busy and servers make good money.”

Asked whether the somewhat inconvenient location of Doc’s Cantina posed additional challenges, Hamm said the facility’s advantages and good marketing should overcome those hurdles in the future.

“Doc’s Cantina is a destination, which makes advertising very important,” he said. “The site has some real advantages that differentiate it from anywhere else in Louisville: the views and the capacity for private parties. … So we’re fine with it.”

Doc’s most profound problems, he repeated, lay with leadership.

“It came down to execution, and we didn’t do well there,” he said, adding that all FCHG partners will remain in place and that Schwartz will as well. “So we’ll step back, regroup and start over.”