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
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
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
"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
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
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."
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
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
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
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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