Debt deepens at Mory’s

Managers and patrons of Mory’s, New Haven’s time-honored club, are now facing the harsh reality that tradition, on its own, may not be enough to sustain the Yale-exclusive institution.

Earlier this week, the News reported that Mory’s is in the process of updating its look and feel to become more student-friendly and prevent itself from becoming “the next Doodle,” club manager Jim Shumway said. But tax forms and interviews with alumni suggest that the club’s financial situation is more dire than it previously seemed.

Mory’s 990 tax form for 2006 showed that the club spent $1,392,576 and only earned $1,224,340 — a loss of nearly $170,000.

The Yale Alumni Magazine’s September/October edition reported on the Mory’s financial crisis in its cover story, “Will Mory’s survive (And should it?).”

But Shumway denied that the debt is a cause for concern, since the club struggles to make a profit more often than not. The real issue, he said, is that in the past five years, the net loss has not been recouped through the gifts and dues of club members, which was always the case before. Shumway said Mory’s, which has a reputation as an elite, old-fashioned eatery, has failed to cultivate a loyal following among recent Yale graduates.

“Now we have lost a lot of potential young alums,” he said. “We are going to have to try to get them back.”

At the same time, though, Mory’s is also trying to galvanize its older members.

Club President Cheever Tyler ’59 sent a letter to alumni members this June pleading for money gifts, but he took an additional, unprecedented step. He asked lifetime members, who make up around three-fourths of Mory’s 15,000-person membership base, to change their status to annual dues-paying members. Lifetime members, who in the “old days” paid Mory’s a lump sum of $10 to $15 for membership, have traditionally been exempt from annual dues.

The $275 per year dues are voluntary for lifetime members who want to “help keep Mory’s afloat,” Tyler said.

Alumni response to the proposal was mixed. “We have had some alums to switch,” Shumway said. “A number of them have said that they’d rather send a contribution. Some of them said no.”

Tyler said the letter was misinterpreted by many members who thought that the dues were now mandatory, and he plans to send out a clarification letter later this month.

And there are the employees. Mory’s staff is one of the few restaurants in New Haven with a unionized staff — a perk that grants wait staff medical benefits, pension plans and disability insurance among other benefits. Tax forms show Mory’s labor expenditures accounted for $904,942 of its $1,224,340 in revenue for 2006.

Shumway said negotiations with the union, however helpful to the club, does not offset yearly rate increases.

Mory’s workers are members of local union 217. Local union 35 President Bob Proto said Mory’s long tradition with the union is part of its success as an establishment.

“Mory’s has been a tradition,” he said. “And part of that tradition was always having top-quality service people in there.”

Perhaps the most pressing struggle for Mory’s, though, is that it is no longer the place to see and be seen. Unlike in decades past, Yalies now have a choice between dozens of restaurants that aim to attract a young clientele.

“I can’t compete with the burrito cart,” Shumway said.

In response, Mory’s management has hired consultants to help the club implement changes. The club has already instituted several changes, including longer hours on the weekends, a relaxed dress code during lunchtime and wi-fi Internet access for members in the upstairs area in the afternoons. The Mory’s menu has also been evolving, as Shumway aims to create a “pub-style” menu for later hours with items like wings and calamari. But he plans to keep the traditional menu items that are unique to the club.

“If I ever tried to take Welsh rarebit or baker’s soup of the menu, I’d be shot,” he said.

But even facing impending financial crisis, Shumway said he remains cognizant that tradition is paramount and the membership program will always be indispensable. When asked whether he would rather watch the private club open its doors to a wider public and change beyond recognition or shut it down, Shumway said he does not have a choice.

“If we cease to operate as a private club, we will cease to exist,” he said.

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