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If You Build It, Will They Eat?

City's Restaurateurs Await `Bounce' From Opening Of Convention Center

February 26, 2006
By JENNIFER HUGET, Courant Staff Writer

The opening of the Connecticut Convention Center last June was supposed to spur new activity at businesses throughout the city. But are Hartford restaurants cashing in?

The answer is a resounding, "Not quite yet."

Hartford boosters and business owners alike say they're optimistic that changes downtown - including new housing that's under development and improvements at the Civic Center - will eventually pay off in terms of bodies through the door. But for now, eight months after the Convention Center's debut, few restaurateurs say that they have benefited much from its presence.

James Varano, whose Asylum-Street barbecue-and-blues venue Black-Eyed Sally's will celebrate its 10th anniversary this August, said, "It's a great convention center. We've seen the little [shuttle] bus come by and drop people off. But it seems there are a lot of smaller conventions. It's good, but they don't really spill out into the city and make an impact. It's not like the boat show's in town and, boom, we're getting pummeled."

Varano, who also owns the French brasserie Pastis on Ann Street, said that business has been "flat" for the past two years. "We've had no sales growth," he said, "but costs are going up. It's not a pretty picture." Insurance rate hikes top that list of rising costs: Verrano said he's paying nearly 7 percent more this year than last for property-casualty coverage and 12 percent more for employee health benefits.

Still, the past couple of years haven't brought all bad news, Varano said: Pastis has done "great" business in corporate functions, private parties (including wedding rehearsal dinners) and banquets. And Varano even thinks that his business will benefit from having endured some tougher times.

Cost increases "make you sharpen your pencil," Varano said. "We did so well at cutting costs this year, profits should be up" when traffic increases.

To keep rising costs at bay, Varano said that he has scheduled labor tighter, increased efficiency in the kitchen and tweaked the menu mix so that labor-intensive dishes earn their keep by selling well. "If an item is labor-intensive but not a big seller, we basically changed the way we make it or got rid of it altogether," he said.

Other measures include evaluating musical acts' draw, "using that to determine whether they get rebooked. In the past, if we liked an act, they didn't necessarily have to ring the cash register" to get booked again.

Varano said that he has also made his vendor-selection process more competitive and cut back on paid advertising, concentrating instead on promotions such as staging community events and offering frequent-diner incentives.

Individual restaurateurs such as Varano need to stay focused on their own bottom lines. But others are paid to keep the big picture in mind.

Michael Kintner, executive director of the Hartford Image Project, said that, in terms of numbers of venues, the city's restaurant business is "booming." Last summer his office counted 168 restaurants and clubs in Hartford; he said that the city has gained 15 or 20 new such establishments a year for each of the past two years and that the downtown area in particular has had about 15 new openings in the past year.

In that time, fewer than five restaurants have closed; several of these were swiftly replaced by new restaurant ventures, Kintner said.

Kintner noted that Hartford's restaurant scene has attracted many young entrepreneurs such as the owners of Agave, Vaughan's Public and Wood-N-Tap. But what's really "new and different for Hartford," he said, is the "phenomenal success of restaurants that are in hotels," such as Vivo's in the new Marriott and Morty and Ming's in the Hilton.

A World Of Competition

But the success of those in-hotel ventures might come at others' expense.

"People at conventions are in conventions," said Bill Sze, whose wife, Cathy Wei, owns Jojo's Coffee Roasting Co. on Pratt Street. "They don't have time. It's a 15-minute walk from there to here."

Sze said that the coffee shop, which opened last March, caters to folks who live or work downtown. The convention center hasn't sent hordes of new customers its way, he said. "During the daytime we don't really see it," Sze said, although "it's possible some of our weekend people are from conventions. We don't ask everyone."

Instead of pinning hopes on a convention-inspired influx of coffee drinkers, Sze said that Wei is building business one customer at a time, cultivating individual relationships, providing top-quality products and hoping that satisfied patrons will pass the word - and takeout menus - to their friends and colleagues. With a small staff (just three full-timers, including Wei, and three part-time workers), labor costs have remained manageable. And the company spends very little on promotions, other than photocopying all those menus.

"The driving force for us is to increase revenues rather than cut costs," Sze said. Although the shop has its slow days - especially when the weather is bad - Sze said it has developed a loyal customer base. "From the beginning, our plan was not to have an advertising budget per se but to rely on word of mouth. If people like our products, they'll let other people know."

That process is a slow one. "Even though we've been here a year, people in the offices right across the street come in and say, `How long have you been here?'"

Still, Sze said, "We're doing OK."

Simon Flynn, president and CEO of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, acknowledges that throughout the state, "business has been flat over the past year. This was a tough summer for managing a restaurant."

"The restaurant business is a tough business, with just a 3 percent profit margin," Flynn said. "In Hartford you've got great expansion of restaurants, but there's also the sense that they have some fairly significant obstacles: energy, labor costs. When you get hit with increasing costs, you can only take so much of that in increased menu prices before you hit buyer resistance."

"It's highly competitive, and there are new competitors all the time," Flynn said. "There's an ongoing need to re-create yourself, through redesign, reinvestment in the restaurant, redesign of the menu."

But Flynn said he is confident that change is, indeed, in the air. In Hartford and elsewhere, Flynn noted, "Restaurateurs are always out front with their investments. That's the genius that starts something going. The full momentum will be when Connecticut wakes up to Hartford as a dining scene."

"The Hartford scene is exciting," Flynn said. "It's at the tipping point of a vibrant restaurant scene. I think it will continue to strengthen. It will become what we've seen in South Norwalk and West Hartford," two cities boasting high concentrations of lively dining options.

Taking A Longer View

Richard Rosenthal, the impresario behind the Max chain and Trumbull Kitchen, shares Flynn's long-term perspective. For Max Downtown and his other restaurants, many of them staples of the area's restaurant scene, Rosenthal said, "Business has been very good."

"We're doing a little better than a year ago," Rosenthal said of Max Downtown, which he co-owns with Steve Abrams. "We had a little slow period, when there was lots of construction nearby. Asylum Street was down to one lane, and parking was difficult. People downtown knew it was hard to get to us," so many stayed away. But now, with that construction complete, Rosenthal is reaping the rewards; his customers can park free at the CityPlace garage or take advantage of valet parking.

Rosenthal attributes most of his business to lunchtime diners from nearby offices and to those same people using his restaurants in the evening for business meetings or to entertain out-of-town clients. Sports events and shows at the Bushnell and Hartford Stage boost sales; on weekend evenings, about half of his customers have come to his restaurants as destinations unto themselves.

Despite the presence of high-quality dining establishments in downtown hotels, Rosenthal maintains that "the best diner is someone who's staying in a hotel. Their only choice is to eat out." And conventions have made a small but noticeable difference in his traffic. "We've seen sporadic business" related to conventions, he said, "but when there has been something going on, we've seen a nice elevation for a day or two."

Even with lots of customers filling seats, Rosenthal said that containing costs is key to his ongoing success. "Energy costs are very high, probably up about 25 percent or so. But what are you going to do? In the big picture, energy's a small part" of expenses. Still, he adds, "We have to increase sales to make up for it."

And, Rosenthal added, "Food costs are always an issue. We're very astute about watching our costs. And we print menus on a weekly basis. If the price of swordfish goes up, we raise the price. Our guest wants a quality dining experience more than the right price."

Rewriting History?

Outside the downtown area, on Farmington Avenue, Jason Bartlett's working hard to make a go of his Dishes restaurant in a location that's had a spotty track record.

Bartlett, who owns a mortgage company and who said he has profited from some lucrative real estate investments, has poured thousands of dollars into the Farmington Avenue diner that once housed the legendary Comet, the Oasis, the Hog River Grille and, most recently (and briefly), the Mississippi Grille.

History would seem to be stacked against Bartlett. How does he expect to succeed where so many before him have failed?

Building on the restaurant's nostalgic stainless-steel-and-chrome decor, Bartlett has spent nearly $100,000 of his own money on renovations that include adding flat-screen monitors at every booth, upgrading and renovating the kitchen, and refurbishing the facility's downstairs bar and lounge. His multiethnic menu is meant to appeal to a wide variety of diners.

On the revenue side, Bartlett said, "The one thing that I know is that it's easier to get people to come to the lounge and bar to try a beverage than to get them to come to a restaurant to try out your food." With that in mind, he plans to bring live jazz, spoken-word performances and other attractions designed to draw a sophisticated audience to his nightspot. "I'm trying to make it a destination," he said. "I don't think anyone's tried that."

Attracting local diners presents one set of challenges. But what about luring conventioneers to make their way up Farmington Avenue?

"I'll need to be more proactive" than business owners closer to the convention center, Bartlett said. "But I feel the restaurant is very different" from others in the city.

Bartlett noted that Dishes stays open until 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, giving folks - both locals and out-of-towners - a chance to grab a bite after area bars close at 2 a.m. And his hand-picked selection of live acts and his willingness to adjust his menu to fit convention themes or special requests ought to be draws, if he makes the effort to let people know about them.

Despite his upfront expenses and the precarious nature of his restaurant's site, Bartlett is undaunted. "I was conscious that Hartford was coming back, and I feel good about the investment." In Hartford, he said, "I think there's a lot more to do, but I think people are really committed to making something happen. I get a really good feeling from them."

Varano, the owner of Black-Eyed Sally's and Pastis, who said that he has been around long enough that he's now referred to as an "institution," agrees.

"I expect 2006 to be an up year," he said, noting that the city has "lots of little engines going. It's not like there's going to be one big bang that's going to make everything better. It'll be lots of little things."

In fact, Varano added, "I'm so bullish, I have plans on the drawing board to completely redo the outside of Black-Eyed Sally's building and do some interior work" to the tune of $100,000. "We want to be ready when all the people come."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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