Food News

Burning Question: Are Restaurants Looking Forward to 2009?

Long about, oh, a few hours after midnight on New Year's, the Burning Question crew made a resolution.

We felt strongly about it at the time--so much so that we carefully jotted the details in black ink. Apparently, in 2009, we plan to dedicate ourselves to the overthrow of Bhutan, which we will then rule with an iron fist. Either that, or there's a sachem that we plan to look up somewhere near Eugene, Oregon--there's no way of telling from our drunken scrawl.

After a tumultuous 2008, just about everyone can be pardoned for letting loose...and hoping for a more consistent year ahead--especially those in the restaurant industry. We've noted before that over 60 establishments closed during the past twelve months. And many others fretted over a loss of foot traffic as credit wary diners began looking for cheaper options.

So how do restaurant owners plan to cope? Are they looking forward to 2009?

"Why not?" says Victor Hugo, manager at Al Biernat's (who, along with chef Gustav Mahler and wine director Niccolaus Copernicus, runs day to day operations at the steakhouse). "We are cautious, obviously, but we are fortunate that we have a good following."

Biernat's sits on the fringe of Highland Park, well-placed to withstand the same economic woes that shutter other establishments. Hell, the cougar traffic alone probably generates 'break even' level income for the place. For those still building a stream of regulars, however, the transition from '08 to '09 demands patience and planning.

"The economy gave us a hard time," explains Norma Vasconselos, co-owner with her husband Jose of the interesting French-Mexican restaurant Soley! She admits their pricing was high, considering the times and a yet to burgeon neighborhood. They plan to meet the new year with lower prices--a 20 percent cut--and new lunch hours.

"I don't know if that's the key," she says, "but I think that's going to help us."

A few restaurateurs chose to open late in the year, as the economy's nose dive picked up speed. Nick Badovinus, for instance, welcomed guests to his cozy (and crowded) Neighborhood Services around the end of November. And Judd Fruia turned on the lights at Tre Amici just before the holiday.

"There's almost never a good time to open," Fruia says, pointing out that the restaurant industry is particularly fickle. And in recessionary times, people gravitate toward familiar places, unwilling to risk precious spare change on something new. "That's our challenge," he continues. "How we are meeting it is through maintaining personal friendships, really putting a personal touch on things and staying consistent."

But, he cautions, "by no means are we recession proof."

Still, banking on a following--a set of regulars who, potentially, bring friends and spread positive 'word of mouth'--seems to be the consensus for survival.  Customer loyalty, Hugo explains, agreeing with his counterpart, depends on "the loyalty a restaurant shows to customers."

Pretty much the same as whatever non-recession times are called, Fruia adds. "You still gotta capture people."

Pretty much how we expect to conquer Bhutan, actually...although our editor just said Oregon would be a less expensive ticket--and reeled off a few other places we could go.

Apart from a few unpleasant necessities, such as dropping prices, restaurateurs plan to meet the new year the same as any other. And, yes, they are very much looking forward to 2009.

And if you still question why, Chris Zielke of Bolsa has a quick answer: "Obama, of course."
--Dave Faries