Two years ago, Mimi's Cafe was a highly visible fixture in the commercial strip of California Avenue immediately west of Highway 99. The well-loved (considering it's a chain) restaurant was a magnet for lunch traffic, owing to its appealing menu and prominent location.
Mimi's was especially noticeable after Three-Way Chevrolet moved away; the dealership's campus was completely razed a few years ago, leaving 10 empty acres directly across the street, and that's how it sat for many months.
But then things went south for Mimi's. A sewer water overflow closed it temporarily in February 2016, and the place never really recovered. Eleven months after that health department disaster, Mimi's closed for good.
Since that time, the building has sat there, forlorn, an outwardly maintained ghost ship. But life went on for the rest of that commercial neighborhood during those two idle years: Directly across the street, built out in multiple phases, 10 acres of new development, mostly chain restaurants, bustle with activity.
Now, though, comes news that will stir this status quo: Soon, perhaps within a month, the Mimi's cadaver will reanimate. Something new is moving in.
Vince Roche, of Cushman & Wakefield, says the property's owner, his client, is in lease negotiations with a restaurant chain that's active in California but does not currently have a presence in Bakersfield. He can't disclose the chain's identity, he said, and he managed not to twitch when I threw a couple of guesses at him.
"People will know them when it's announced," he told me. "It's a well-known chain."
How that stretch of California Avenue can support so many restaurants baffles me. Same with that strand of eateries on Stockdale Highway between Calloway and Buena Vista, where local restaurants like La Costa and soon-to-open Viceroy, specializing in upscale Indian cuisine, create synergy with thriving chains like BJ's Restaurant and Brewhouse. Parking lots are full and waitlists are the rule at many places on many nights.
Some might check the unemployment rates or their stock portfolios to get a reading on the nation's economic health, but if you ask me, the length of time it takes to find a parking space at P.F. Chang's is a perfectly legitimate gauge.
This is because we put our money behind our fascination with food. Americans have been spending more than half of their food budget on restaurants for a decade now. Yes, we eat most of our meals at home but we spend more in restaurants than at grocery stores.
I'm ashamed to admit I probably personally skew the statistics in that direction. What does it say that half a dozen servers at various local restaurants, both locally owned and chain, know my order before I can say, "Hello again"? Nothing good, at least in terms of my Visa balance.
What is a consumer to do? It's not our fault. Repeat until you believe it. It's not our fault. We are deluged with advertising for restaurants — on television, in newspapers, on news websites, in direct-mail pieces. Some, like Buffalo Wild Wings and Outback Steakhouse, are almost inescapable in televised sports programs.
Whatever the reason, we're drawn to food and news about food. We at this media company see it in our analytics every day. We publish news articles about proposed state laws, about funding for municipal programs, about alarming new health trends. But all anyone wants to read, it sometimes seems, is news about restaurant openings, street mayhem, and what we might regard as the intersection of the two, the disgusting details of county health department restaurant closure reports. Last week's news about the closure of two east Bakersfield bars, Amestoy's and McMurphy's, for health code violations, attracted more eyeballs than my column about voter registration efforts at Bakersfield College. Never mind, bad example: I would have done the same thing.
Menu additions, restaurant ownership changes, dining reviews — we eat that stuff up, so to speak.
I really ought to cook more often. Maybe you should, too. I'd save money and have a better chance of avoiding calorie-rich food. But cooking at home takes time that’s in short supply, and the kids are on their own these days, so those "Tell me about school" questions at the dinner table are a thing of the past.
We fill such voids, in part, with the fix of cloth-napkin service and all that comes with it — the buzz of activity that surrounds the table, the ambient music and laughter, the social connection of a public setting.
So we don't mind spending 54 percent of our food budgets in restaurants, where 50 years ago we spent just a third.
That is changing. Restaurants are already being hurt by the convenience of Netflix, the rise in popularity of pre-made meals, a surge of interest in online grocery delivery and, in California, increases in the minimum wage. It all adds up to the makings of a lifestyle correction.
Eighty-two percent of American meals are fixed at home as it is — a larger percentage than were cooked 10 years ago. In 2000, the average American dined out 216 times a year. Last year, that figure fell to 185.
I'll become a part of that trend at some point. But, for the time being, I have certain servers who would miss me, and I feel a responsibility to keep current with developments in the local restaurant business. Yeah, let's go with that.
When Mimi's reopens, I'll be obligated to take a peek. Folks who've been wondering about that long-vacant but ideally located restaurant will want to look as well. It's more of that irresistible restaurant news we seem to crave, and it's certainly livelier than reading about voter registration.