Party's Over

Dallas restaurateurs weather a year of many valleys, few peaks

If there was ever a year that bulged with ups and downs, ebb and flow, mood swings and yin-yang fluxes, 2001 is that year. Only instead of a series of peaks and valleys, 2001 was more like a time line of troughs with the summits sheared off, leaving depressions that rose only to mind-numbing neutrality.

That 2001 was going to be a tough year in the Dallas hospitality industry was a painful given before it even happened. The dot-com bubble had burst, splattering the gory remains of disposable income and expense accounts across the landscape. Add to that the tragicomedy of a presidential election settled by nine old men and women in robes, and 2001 was destined not only to be dejected but just plain weird. And it was.

More than that, 2001 was a strange time of recovery from a long, drunken binge of prosperity and its concomitant bizarre notions that we all kept repeating with a straight face. The absurdity of it all slapped us right in the gizzard. "A lot of people don't know about economic cycles," says Matthew Mabel, president of Surrender Inc., a management and hospitality consulting firm. "I mean, who's got the stack of remaindered books about the new paradigm and the Dow hitting 30,000? That was folly."

Restaurant consultant Matthew Mabel says economic cycles finally caught up with irrational exuberance in 2001.
Judy Walgren
Restaurant consultant Matthew Mabel says economic cycles finally caught up with irrational exuberance in 2001.

But even if irrational exuberance was tracking firmly in its downward spiral when 2001 struck, many of us pretended it wasn't. The thing is, the trend line wasn't a simple crash. There was no bloodbath at the upper end of the market as many had predicted, or reams of shelved restaurant openings. It was more like a leech slowly sucking the vitality out of a hospitality artery, leaving the industry feverish and disoriented, wondering if things had bottomed out or were just getting started.

Perhaps the most significant blow was the plunge in conventions. This year illustrated just how important the business traveler is to the Dallas dining cash flow.

And Dallas not only lost at least one major convention, a lot of smaller business meetings and conventions went down the drain as well. According to Greg Elam of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau, Dallas suffered its first dip in convention bustle in more than a decade. "We got sort of spoiled, actually," he explains. "Every year we had increases." Add convention-center construction and expansion to this mix, and you have a potent recipe for boiled malaise.

"It was kind of a lackluster year," says Paul Pinnell, general manager of the newly refurbished Nana restaurant atop the Wyndham Anatole. "I'm amazed at how many restaurateurs did not realize how much of their business came from citywide conventions."

Yet the gut punch to the industry was the September 11 terrorist attacks.

"During the week of the attack, the restaurants were empty because we were all home in shock, watching TV," Mabel says. But a week later, Dallas restaurants and bars started to fill again as people hungered to get out and break bread with friends after a week of endlessly viewing and reviewing the death and destruction. That event, which triggered huge layoffs and virtually halted Dallas convention and meeting business, turned a dour year morose.

Yet amazingly, the depths of that depression were short-lived. "Normalness is now occurring in our convention business," Elam says. "It's climbing its way back. It isn't the same as the year 2000, but it's coming back."

The rush to a sort of normalcy is not without casualties. Many Dallas restaurants and caterers felt the September 11 attacks ripple through their holiday party business, which, according to Dean McSherry, vice president of Preferred Restaurant Services, is way off 2000 levels. He says many businesses didn't want to be seen partying during these sober times, putting a painful pinch on the industry. "The ones that were smart and watched the fat throughout the year are going to be able to weather this storm," he says.

Ironically, that sober posturing may help Dallas convention business in 2002. Pinnell reports that several business meetings originally slated for places of frivolity such as Orlando and Las Vegas have been canceled and rebooked for Chicago, Atlanta and Dallas. And restaurant operators, once asphyxiated by a tight labor pool driving them to shell out high salaries and signing bonuses, once again can take their pick of available talent. The squeeze may have other benefits to those operators with steely discipline. "Good companies know that if they work on improving during down times and give guests a memorable experience, when the good times come back they will be way far ahead of those that cut too much," Mabel says.

Stork Droppings

While there were no obvious trends in the 2001 Dallas restaurant scene, there was a significant number of births. The Dallas trend that will not stop--steak--widened its reach across the landscape, come hell or high prices. This year saw the birth of Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, Timpano Italian Chophouse (Carlson Restaurants Worldwide), Perry's Restaurant and Silver Fox, the joint venture between former III Forks owner Dale Wamstad and Gene Street, chairman of Consolidated Restaurant Cos., Inc.

Not to be outdone by cattle, seafood also plunged ahead, though at a slower pace. Chris Svalesen is dishing out his seafood expertise in the half-finished 36 Degrees, where he serves fresh fish on tables surrounding a figment-of-the-imagination dining room. Richard Chamberlain also took a step away from meat intensity and opened Chamberlain's Fish Market Grill.

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