Restaurateurs revamp menus, prices to curb recession’s bite
February 08, 2010
With diners fewer and thriftier, some local restaurateurs are beating out their national competitors with more varied menus and more deals on meals.
Some are even launching new restaurants. Robert Maffucci, chef-owner for the Vito’s restaurant chain, is opening one on New Britain’s Main Street in March. Max Restaurant Group owner Richard Rosenthal opened a Max Burger in West Hartford last year. Former Hot Tomato’s manager Jimmy Cosgrove is opening Salute in former Dulce restaurant on Trumbull Street in downtown Hartford.
Contrast that to the recent announcement that chain eateries including Uno and Ninety Nine restaurants will close some Hartford area locations.
Dining experts say local restaurateurs are outperforming their chain counterparts because of their flexibility, longevity, and commitment to the region.
“I don’t think the national chains can adapt to the local needs quickly enough,” said Simsbury restaurant consultant Ferg Jansen Jr., of Tyee Management Associates.
Additionally, Jansen, who has worked with over 150 restaurants in the area over the past 15 years, said he travels all over the country looking at restaurant trends, and observed that for national companies, what works in California might not play out in Connecticut.
When the lease comes due and a restaurant is underperforming, Jansen said the national chains might choose to cut their losses, while local owners who have their livelihoods at stake are more willing to stick it out when times get tough.
Business is down across the board, but some are clearly weathering the storm better than others. Restaurateur Richard Rosenthal, owner of the eight restaurants in the Max Restaurant Group, said business overall was down by about 10 percent in 2009, preceded by a 5 percent downturn in 2008.
“It’s been pretty consistent for the restaurants in the suburbs and downtown,” Rosenthal said, with the weekends continuing to be strong, while the early part of the week, including Sunday nights, less people are going out.
“Our peaks are not quite as high and the valley are not quite as low,” Rosenthal said. “Our average day is not that much different. Weekends are a bit of a given,” and continue to do well.
Billy Grant, who owns two restaurants in West Hartford Center — Bricco and Grants — said the quality of his food and service are only part of their success. “We are very fortunate because we are in a good area,” Grant said.
As with other area restaurants, Grant said both also experienced a downturn of about 5 to 10 percent in 2009. Weekend business continues to be strong, but weekday business has been slower and the average guest check is down.
“I think more people are more cautious,” Grant said.
Maffucci, chef and owner of Vito’s By the Park along with three other Vito’s venues, said that his restaurants have been able to create a “recession-proof” niche by catering to all price-points, combined with an emphasis on Italian food and consistent, friendly service. This January was his best in three years, he said.
The various price points have essentially created three restaurants in one, he said. Vito’s grab-and-go fast casual food sales have increased, while the more upscale dining has dropped off some; his catering business to nearby offices and over 90 apartments continues to be steady.
“We can appeal to so many facets,” Maffucci said. “We have been able to do well.”
Maffucci said that in 2006 on a typical Friday lunch, Vito’s By the Park would do about $1,200 in its fast-casual dining and $3,000 for the upscale meals. Now, it does about $2,500 in express meals and $1,500 in fine dining sales.
Rosenthal said that despite the recession, people are still eager to dine out for entertainment and convenience.
“The average check is lower, but not drastically,” Rosenthal said.”They are a little more value oriented, and savvier.”
Despite restaurateurs’ best of efforts to woo more diners, other pressures are bearing down on restaurant operators. As of Jan. 10, the state hourly minimum wage increased to $8.25, with servers now being paid $5.69, and bartenders receiving $7.34 an hour, with a 31 percent tip credit for servers and an 11 percent tip credit for bartenders.
The wage increase has increased variable labor costs, but isn’t impacting them too greatly, said Rosenthal, who noted that most of his employees already earn above the hourly minimum wage.
As Maffucci points out, now is not the time to pass on those costs to diners.
Regardless of the higher labor costs, many restaurateurs have lowered their prices. At Grants Restaurant, seven entrees are available for under $20. In addition to specially priced March Madness and Super Bowl menus, Bricco will offer three days of Old World Italian meals for $25 in February.
Although the pinch of the downturn has affected the bottom line for most restaurateurs, it also presents opportunities. Maffucci, who has been in the restaurant business for more than 30 years, has done most of his expansion during recessions. His latest venture: Vito’s Tavern & Pizzeria, a casual dining restaurant scheduled to open in New Britain in March.
Cosgrove, manager at Hot Tomato’s for 13 years and in the restaurant business for 30, also sees opportunity during the recession. Salute is due to open by month’s end with an Italian menu.
Cosgrove and his partners took over Dulce’s lease — located next door to Vito’s By The Park — in September. Since December, they have been making major changes to the 100-plus seat interior.
The location is ideal to build upon clientele living in local apartments and working in downtown businesses, he said.
“One of our goals is to be a little more price friendly and economically friendly,” Cosgrove said, referring to his plan to serve larger portions.