What Happens To A Closed Restaurant's Decor?

The 2020s have brought with them a devastating wave of restaurant closures initiated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent economic turmoil. Businesses of all shapes and sizes have shuttered, including time-honored institutions like Delmonico's and multinational chains like Krispy Kreme. But it's small, independent restaurants that have faced the biggest challenges, with over 90,000 closing their doors between the start of the pandemic and January 2022. The restaurant industry has been caught in similarly dire straits before. The Los Angeles Times points out thousands of restaurant closures and an estimated loss exceeding two billion customers during the Great Recession — and future troubles are inevitable. Each closure brings so many challenges that it's easy to overlook one of the most obvious problems: if you have to clear out your restaurant, where are you going to put everything?

Clearing out the back-of-house is one thing. There are auction houses that specifically deal in commercial kitchen equipment, such as Charyn Auctions in Berkeley, California. Its founder, Robert Charyn, told the North Bay Business Journal that he regularly sees 80 to 100 bidders at his auctions, conducted virtually in the wake of COVID. It's easy to see why the kitchen equipment sells so well. Every restaurant needs the same core items: stoves, ovens, cookware, etcetera. But the decor (the furniture, wall art, lighting) is more specific to the individual restaurant — often reflecting the culture of the food, the age of the establishment, and the tastes of each owner.

Restaurant decor is auctioned off or thrown away

Ideally, the decor, or at least the most valuable items among it, will find a new home. These typically go to auction as well, but many are purchased by private collectors rather than other restaurants. When Chicago Joe's, a fixture of the Windy City's North Side, closed in April 2022 after 33 years in business, the duties of selling its decor fell on auctioneer Randy Donley. He told the Chicago Sun-Times that their target buyers were "longtime customers, friends, and family," emphasizing the importance of keeping the restaurant's history alive in the community. The items auctioned off included sports memorabilia, light fixtures from the 1920s, and even pieces of the restaurant's oak bar.

Ultimately, close to 300 people showed up to bid on Chicago Joe's decor, illustrating how a community's love for its restaurants can help to preserve their legacy long after closure. The top prize of the night was Chicago Joe's neon sign, which sold for $32,450 (via Chicago Tribune). But unfortunately, not all restaurants get the auction treatment when they close. In May of 2020, during the height of pandemic restrictions, The Village Sun published photos from the closure of Manhattan's Soho Room, showing piles of chairs and banquettes abandoned in a dumpster. It's a stark contrast to Chicago Joe's which — despite closing its doors — is able to maintain its community presence today and far into the future.