Barbici Italian Street Food and survival on Eddy Street
Charlie Kenney | Tuesday, October 13, 2020
On September 28, 2020, Barbici Italian Street Food closed the doors of its 104 North Eddy Street location for the last time.
Located just off of Notre Dame’s campus, the restaurant, once characterized by bike-themed décor and orange and yellow colored walls, now sits empty. A dim light casts a shadow on the stainless steel countertops of the open kitchen, and its permanent wooden tables sit empty, fruitlessly waiting for their next patrons. The two sheets of white paper that cover the location’s glass double-doors read: “Sadly, Barbici is no longer in operation. We have enjoyed these six years serving this community.”
For those of us who keep our eyes on Eddy Street, this abrupt closing came as no surprise.
If a restaurant wishes to survive on the financially unforgiving street that lies south of our campus, it must possess a certain combination of quality and capital.
For those locations tied to corporate brands, the latter can often outweigh the former. No matter how slow the business of a Chipotle, Five Guys or Blaze may be, their corporate backers will help them stay afloat. And even if the product they are selling is not particularly spectacular, business will still flow in, most likely due to name recognition alone. Money can come from elsewhere when it fails to sufficiently pass into their registers.
Smaller, locally owned businesses are not so lucky and cannot afford to open slowly or rely on the power of a brand. Every student or South Bend local who walks through the door must be actively convinced to spend their dollars there rather than at the chain next door. And, often, even consistently delivering quality food is not enough. The Cajun offerings of Yats won widespread praise from students, as did the tapas-like environment present at The Livery; however, both closed their doors no less than two years after opening them.
The majority of students in the ND/SMC/HC community spend relatively little money off campus, eating the large majority of their meals in the dining halls. To patronize a restaurant and spend one’s own money doing so is a decision of consequence and it appears that, more often than not, reliable, trustworthy brands win out over new, local ventures.
If a third element allows for a business’s survival on Eddy Street, then it is alcohol. Brothers and O’Rourke’s are, by no means, national brands. Students don’t go to them because they know the quality will be high. But, college-aged individuals have a certain itch and those establishments scratch it.
Barbici seems to have been an attempt to reconcile the demands of Eddy Street with local ownership.
The restaurant felt like a chain. A clean-cut logo, clever ad campaigns, a unique focus on bicycles and a do-it-yourself approach to Italian food. I constantly found myself, and saw others, checking to make sure that its Eddy Street location really was the only one. And, if that was not enough, Barbici Italian Street Food offered alcohol options throughout its tenure, providing the services of a bar without the accompanying atmosphere.
Barbici seemed to be a test run for an idea that had the potential to expand much farther than South Bend. After all, brands like Sweet Green and Chipotle began with nearly the same idea — seeking to expand the Subway model into another cuisine — and saw nationwide success as a result.
How had Barbici identified a glaring vacancy within the market and still failed?
The answer lies in that Barbici sought to fill a vacancy that never existed and had, in fact, been occupied for years by its neighbor just down the street.
The ordering process at Blaze Pizza and Barbici Italian Street Food is not so different. A type of bread/pasta is chosen as the base, options for sauce are provided and then cheese, vegetable and protein options are picked from. The difference lies in that one provides a pizza dish while the other provides a pasta one.
The American people are more attracted to pizza as a quick meal. I don’t need to prove that to you. Blaze cooks all its ingredients upon order instead of opting for the pre-heated, buffet-style that Barbici employed. Further, Blaze had a history and funding while the restaurant in question did not.
Barbici Italian Street Food never had a chance on Eddy Street. Six years is impressive, truly, but a single event was always going to come along and sweep them off their feet (in a bad way). In this case, COVID-19 dealt the final blow.
Perhaps if Barbici had placed its first restaurant in a location where a direct competitor didn’t already have an established foothold, then it could have expanded more — seven, maybe eight restaurants across the greater Michiana area could have been a possibility. But, like Icarus, Barbici flew too close to the sun and desired a spot on the ever-busy Eddy Street. Glue melts off feathers just as easily as customers flow out a door.