Portobello's closes its doors after wave of cancellations — including Trudeau party of 70

After 11 years in downtown St. John's, Portobello's announced its closing on the same day staff had hoped to host the prime minister and Liberal donors.

Liberal Party event was moved to Alt Hotel, dealing blow to struggling St. John's restaurant

Portobello's sits on the east end of Duckworth Street, overlooking the harbour and its visitors. (Portobello's Restaurant/Facebook)

After 11 years in downtown St. John's, Portobello's owner Barry Bennett announced the restaurant's closing on the same day he'd hoped to host the prime minister and Liberal donors.

The event — featuring a speech by Justin Trudeau and dinner for 70 guests — was slated to be held at Portobello's, until the group moved its booking two weeks ago, Bennett said.

That was one of the final blows, after a winter filled with cancelled reservations and no-shows at the Duckworth Street restaurant.

"People book reservations for large groups or parties and they don't show up for those reservations," Bennett told CBC News.

Barry Bennett is the owner of Portobello's on Duckworth Street in St. John's. (NAPE)

CBC News emailed Trudeau's team to confirm the reservation was cancelled. No response has yet been given.

Aside from Trudeau and his group of supporters, Bennett said he had three Saturday nights in a row throughout December where groups of 30 or 40 people didn't show up.

On Valentine's Day, 36 tables were booked and 14 cancelled or no-showed.

"That hurts the bottom line," he said. "Small things like that, it makes a difference, and you can ask any local restaurateur in this city and they'll tell you the exact same thing."

We used to get a lot of oil groups coming to the restaurant. We hardly see them anymore.- Barry Bennett

​Portobello's moved to its location at the east end of Duckworth Street 10 years ago. Before that, it existed for a year at a different location on the other end of Duckworth.

Bennett thinks the location was also a factor in their decline — it's off the beaten path of foot traffic in downtown, sitting 1.4 kilometres from George Street.

He bought into the business a few years ago, and eventually took it over. It became his full-time job. In a short period of time, he's seen the restaurant business take a hit, influenced heavily by the local economy.

"We used to get a lot of oil groups coming to the restaurant. We hardly see them anymore," he said. 

"More restaurants are opening up this spring and there's restaurants closing up right behind it. There's no give there."

Support local, owner urges

What irks Bennett is seeing more national franchises, which are run by local managers and staff but have profits heading out of the province, popping up around the city.

While he says people like to talk about supporting local, Bennett wants more people to pay attention to where they are spending their money.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave a speech to Liberal donors during an event at the Alt Hotel on Friday in St. John's. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

An example, he said, is the Liberal event moving to the Alt Hotel — owned by the Germain group of hotels, based in Quebec.

"Trudeau was supposed to be in our restaurant today for that meeting, for that reception, but they cancelled on us two weeks ago and brought their business to a mainland franchise," he said.

"And so the local person has to miss out on that."

Staff surprised, but understanding, owner says

Portobello's had a staff of 25, many of whom had been there for several years.

Bennett broke the news to the public Friday on Facebook, posting that the restaurant would be closed until further notice. He said the staff didn't have much of a heads up.

"They were obviously upset because they didn't get much time, no notice really, because I had to stop the bleeding."

Bennett said he wants to thank all the staff and customers from the restaurant's 11 years in business. He'll lay low for a while, mapping out his next steps, but said he hopes to see them again in the future.

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