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Restaurants In Connecticut Feeling Economic Squeeze

GREG MORAGO

June 17, 2008

The scare of tainted tomatoes couldn't have come at a worse time.

While most restaurateurs sidestepped bad tomatoes so their customers were not affected, the national salmonella outbreak was just one bullet they had to dodge. Lately, those bullets are getting harder to evade. Food prices, utility costs and fuel surcharges have hit restaurateurs solidly in the wallet.

"It's brutal," said Robert DeZinno, president of the Connecticut Restaurant Association. "And now with the floods in the Midwest, they're predicting as much as a third of America's corn crop is going to be ruined. We haven't begun to see those costs passed on yet."

For restaurant owners and chefs, the price of doing business this year has grown tremendously. The cost of grains (wheat, in particular), the cost of fresh fish and quality beef, the cost of utilities and the cost of gasoline (which has at least doubled delivery charges) have conspired to make this a lean year for the food service industry. Restaurants have had to rethink their business in order to stay profitable.

At Dish Bar & Grill in Hartford, owner Dan Keller took sea bass off the menu and replaced it with lower-cost halibut for $32 an entree. "Sea bass went up to $19 a pound. If I had kept it on, I would have had to charge $40. I can't charge $40 for a plate of fish," Keller said. "I've been in the restaurant business 24 years and I've never seen the cost of food this high. Ever."

Those costs have resulted in changes that are both transparent and highly noticeable to diners.

Flour prices, which chef Billy Grant said are "through the roof," have altered bread service at Grants in West Hartford. Now bread is available only if the table asks for it. It is served with a chickpea spread instead of butter (butter, like the bread, is also available on request).

"We're having to be creative and flexible. We're watching portioning. We're concentrating on more economic cuts. We're saving a little bit here and there," said Grant, the chef/owner of Grants and Bricco, also in West Hartford. "At the same time, we can't compromise on what we're doing."

Chefs and restaurant owners say they want to maintain quality but also avoid passing their mounting costs on to the customer. But customers might wonder why they're not getting bread or why their steak dinner might require a small loan.

At Sauce in Glastonbury, diners used to get a bread basket loaded with focaccia, ciabatta and garlic loaf bread the restaurant used to buy. Bread prices, however, have forced Sauce to start baking its own bread. Goodbye, bread bounty; hello, homemade semolina batard.

"It's an excellent bread. People love it, but we had to change," said chef Michael Kelley, adding that a 50-pound bag of flour used to be $11; it's now $30. "It's a hard time for restaurants right now. We can't get a break."

Bread prices are so high that even something as simple as a grinder can be an expensive proposition.

Six months ago a grinder roll cost Jordan Dikegoros 38 cents. Today, it's 60 cents a price so high he's considered stopping making grinders at J Restaurant Bar in Hartford. Already, the restaurant he owns has stopped buying bread for bread baskets and now is making its own focaccia. He's cut back weekend service hours. And he's even toyed with cutting the New York sirloin from his menu; he pays $12 for the 14-ounce steak that goes for $24.

"It's extremely scary. There's no end in sight. Every day it's a different item going up," Dikegoros said. "My biggest fear is if we have to adjust our prices, and we might have to, that we might price people out from going out to dinner."

Gas prices, which food distribution and trucking companies pass on to restaurants, continue to climb and chisel away at restaurant profitability. "It has upset the cost of everything," said James O'Shea, owner of West Street Grill in Litchfield. "It's been very hard to make a simple living out of a restaurant now."

The recent tomato scare a national outbreak of salmonella that the U.S. government still has not determined the exact source of put a dink in already dented restaurant business. "It's one more strike; one more thing we have to worry about. And it's one more reason people might not go out to a restaurant," said Rob Maffucci, owner of Vito's restaurants in Greater Hartford, including Vito's by the Park in Hartford. "We have to be very strategic when it comes to handling extra costs. We have to be religious about our portion control. We're on the defensive when it comes to all food costs."

The Max Restaurant Group dumped its supply of tomatoes upon news of the salmonella outbreak. At Max Downtown in Hartford, the kitchen promptly switched to cherry tomatoes in salad and yellow tomatoes in burgers (so that customers could quickly identify the large slice wasn't from a red round). While prices are creeping up, Max Restaurant Group hasn't resorted to passing costs on to the consumer, said Steve Abrams, owner of Max Downtown.

"If you had a normal economy, you could increase your prices. In this economy, we don't want to raise prices and we're not at any restaurants," he said, adding that gas surcharges are coming not just from the food trucks but from liquor deliveries. "We're paying more for everything."

While he hasn't noticed a slowdown in sales, Abrams said he's ready for it. "I'm not naive. It's not like we're not going to experience it. It's coming. Each week we talk about being ready for it by making sure our food purchases are in line, our labor is in line and that our hospitality is in line so that when the slowdown does come, we'll be ready."

Summer business is a bright spot on the horizon. DeZinno said that the gas prices are prompting "staycations" for families who traditionally take an out-of-state summer vacation. Those local dollars might mean more business for Connecticut restaurateurs, especially for restaurants on the shoreline, he said. "We're going to get through this. It's not all gloom and doom," DeZinno said. "We're banking on [summer] pretty heavily."

Maffucci agrees: "In summer people are still going to go out and enjoy themselves. It might be a little tougher and they might not do it as often, but they're still going to enjoy themselves," he said. "You're not going to give up your pizza on a Friday night. We hope."

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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