Wilmington restaurateur Ash Aziz, owner of Circa 1922 and Pizzeria Il Forno, has announced that he will no longer be moving forward with Bijou on the River, an upscale restaurant planned for the mixed-use River Place development in downtown Wilmington.
Aziz signed on for the River Place project, which is part of a public-private partnership between East West Partners and the city of Wilmington, in 2017. While there are a number of factors that led to his decision, Aziz said that he could no longer see a clear path for the success of the Bijou on the River concept.
“It’s with great disappointment that I needed to discontinue construction of our new venture at River Place,” Aziz said. “I was very excited about this project and felt Wilmington would have been very happy with the concept. As a result of multiple hurdles during this pandemic, I felt that continuing the project would have been counterproductive in this environment.”
Aziz began construction on the project with Wilmington-based McKinley Building Corp. in January this year, but put a stop to it in mid-March given rising concerns surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and measures to slow its spread.
Aziz said he was willing to take his losses in terms of construction costs, and that McKinley Building was both understanding and hospitable throughout the entire process.
“All of the parties involved were able to arrive at this decision amicably given that the correct path forward was not clear in this uncertain climate,” Aziz said.
Aziz said the restaurant was designed to be a high-end, full-service dining experience that would depend on an influx of customers from area hotels, the Wilmington Convention Center and entertainment venues such as Thalian Hall and the Wilson Center. It would not, on the other hand, be conducive to carry-out or the current regulations restricting dine-in capacity to 50%.
While some restaurants can operate successfully under these restrictions, Aziz said that would not be the case for this particular concept.
“I anticipate these things being an issue for a while,” Aziz said. “And I couldn’t successfully launch Bijou and generate the kind of excitement and momentum necessary for it to be successful given the current state of the industry.”
Patrick Riley, vice president of Wilmington-based commercial real estate firm Cape Fear Commercial, said negotiations for a replacement tenant are currently under way.
“We are actively working with another group, and hopefully we'll have some news in the next week or so,” Patrick Riley said.
The commercial portion of River Place is still expected to include high-end urban market DGX, Mellow Mushroom, Axis Fitness, a branch of Bank of America and Nutrition Spot, a healthy smoothie eatery.
Aziz said his existing restaurants Circa 1922 and Pizzeria Il Forno are sustaining, and doing “everything they can to bide time and get through to the other side.”
“I strongly believe that once we do get to the other side of this that people will still want to go out to eat, to socialize, and to enjoy a meal and drinks with family and friends,” Aziz said. “Many people may realize that they had taken these things for granted. My only concern is that a lot of the independent restaurants may not make it.”
Aziz said that many restaurants, on average, see only an 18% profit when things are running perfectly. So independent restaurants can only withstand the kinds of losses they are facing right now for so long.
To survive, Aziz said, restaurants will have to adapt and learn to operate at a much leaner capacity.
“The industry will have to become more accommodating, and less complicated,” Aziz predicts. ”In due time, I believe this pandemic and the current limitations will pass. The hospitality business of Wilmington will come back strong and I look forward to being part of it.”