ASHLAND — A slowdown in patronage to local restaurants is forcing owners to cut hours and workers. In several cases, owners are closing their doors for good.

ASHLAND — A slowdown in patronage to local restaurants is forcing owners to cut hours and workers. In several cases, owners are closing their doors for good.

Three Ashland restaurants in the downtown area — Ashland Bistro Café, Il Giardino Cucina Italiana and Harper's Restaurant — faced the prospect of shutting down or relocating in the past month. Many others, such as Chateaulin, in the heart of the Plaza, reported below-average earnings for the fall and early winter season, compared with previous years.

"Business has definitely been a bit slow," said Jason Doss, co-owner of Chateaulin. "The holiday season was not as busy as it usually is. It makes things difficult, but we're still going to try to operate."

Italian restaurant Il Giardino, which had been a staple on Granite Street near the Plaza for more than a decade until it closed in November, is in the process of reopening at 35 N. Central Ave. in Medford, where Oh's Osaka used to be. (Oh's has since relocated to 123 S. Front St., Medford, formerly the site of Ground Zero.)

On Dec. 7, Paul Maurer and Kathie Chadbourne closed the door on Harper's, a restaurant they had opened just 15 months before at 36 S. Second St., Ashland. The couple were preparing to move to Salt Lake City, but now plan to reopen the Ashland restaurant sometime this winter, thanks to an act of goodwill by their landlord, they said.

Ashland Bistro Café — formerly the Ashland Bakery Café — shut down in late November. Marlane Webb and her husband, Scott Balcomb, bought the Ashland Bakery Café in 1998. They sold it in 2007, only to buy it back in February of this year.

The second honeymoon was short.

"In seven months, we lost almost $30,000," said Webb. "The cost of just opening the door, and employee salaries, it was too much."

Webb, who also works at the Ashland Springs Hotel, said operations and maintenance costs wiped out what profit they could make on the café.

"We gave our heart and soul for that restaurant," Webb said. "My husband ran it seven days a week. It's so hard to run a business in this town."

The winter slowdown is a reality restaurant owners must deal with, said Ashland Finance Director Lee Tuneberg. While the prospect of paying rent on a building that goes unused for several months may deter some owners from opening shop in Ashland, the ones who succeed do so in the same business cycle as all the others.

"There's no doubt about it, November through February, of course, is our off season," Tuneberg said. "As far as businesses go, it's up to the individual owner to decide whether January is the time they all take a vacation or stay around."

But Webb said she could not afford to stay open even that long.

"For months, there was almost no business — you have to close for five months anyway," she said. "It makes it really hard to stay in business."

She also said the city's prepared food and beverage tax, extended by voters in November, played a role, turning diners away from her restaurant in favor of other spots around the valley.

"I've had people say to me, 'I'm just not going to eat in Ashland anymore,'" Webb said. "We have lost so much business over the years because of it."

While some owners have rallied against the tax, others have seen their profits rise steadily in that time, Tuneberg said.

"Ever since I've been here, I've heard people complain the meals tax is an unfair cost for them," Tuneberg said. "But then others have reported record years. I would guess that this is just a hard winter season, because we've had several in a row that have been flat or declining a little bit."

For restaurant owners such as Doss, the decline in diners means moving forward with limited resources, and working against an uncertain future. Doss said he had no plans to shut down Chateaulin, Ashland's second oldest restaurant, anytime soon. But the prospect of an extended recession has him looking to save on expenses any way he can.

"We're cutting back on staffing, purchases and everything," Doss said. "Hopefully the tourist season will be much busier."

Elon Glucklich is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Contact him at eglucklich@gmail.com.