Food for thought

Published 11:59 pm Thursday, February 5, 2009

Historically, as the economy decreases, people tend to limit their personal budgets and often one of the first expenses to get cut is eating out.

In fact, the National Restaurant Association predicts that restaurant sales in the U.S. will fall 1 percent in 2009, after several years of consistent revenue growth. Chicago research firm Technomic estimates a loss of 9,400 restaurants in 2009, up from 7,700 last year.

While these national trends may be alarming, local restaurateurs remain confident overall.

“There’s really no way you can compare the national economy and Andalusia’s economy,” said Casey Jones of C.J.’s Grille. “The national economy doesn’t hit home in Andalusia and the smaller communities. We kind of survive in our own environment.”

The true test of how Andalusia’s economy is faring will be the sales generated next Saturday — on Valentine’s Day.

“That’s going to be a good test of what things are like here in Andalusia,” he said. “For restaurants, that’s our biggest night of the year.”

Going strong: C.J.’s Grille — open since October 2008

“Right now, I can say we’ve done very well,” Jones said. “I knock on wood every day. The thing is if you put out a good product and give good service at a reasonable price, you’re going to be successful.”

While others may say the economy is having a hard impact on customer sales, Jones said that doesn’t appear to be the case for him. In fact, December sales were “fantastic,” and January was strong.

“In December, we projected $37,000 and did $61,000,” he said. “That’s well above what we projected. We just finished January and were about 38 percent over projections, so I would call ourselves ‘steady to strong.’”

However, Jones said he holds no illusions that sales will remain at the same level indefinitely.

“I’ve been in this business long enough to know it could change at any time,” he said. “I stress to my staff that we have to be ‘spot on’ all the time. This is a small town. If one person has a bad experience, the whole town will find out about it and that can hurt business.”

Jones said he serves an average of 130 plates at lunch, where the average ticket price is $7.89, and 90 plates at dinner at an average of $13.89 per plate.

“So our sales are higher at night, but we have more volume at lunch,” he said. “In the restaurant business, we say you pay your bills with lunch and live off dinner.

“I understand our growth, because of the market we have, is not going to come from new people,” he said. “It’s going to come from regulars who come back at night.

“We went though a huge period where convenience was the key,” he said. “And now because of the economy, people are cooking at home. That means we have to really be ‘on’ every day. We can’t slack up in our products or our service. We have a staff meeting every day and that’s what I tell them constantly.”

David’s Catfish House — open since August 2007

“Business is good,” said David’s Catfish House owner Bill Spurlin. “I’m really pleased with the way things have gone. Last week, figures showed our sales up 6 percent from a year ago. Any time I can be up from a year ago, we’re really pleased. In my opinion, the strong restaurants are going to do well — the ones that serve a good product and have good service, they’re going to be there.”

Spurlin said his business is split 50-50 with lunch and dinner, but the most business he has comes on Friday and Saturday night.

“For people, that’s their form of recreation — to go out and have a meal with friends,” he said. “And we love that.”

Holding on: Ofelia’s – Open since April 2004

Tucked back on River Falls Street, Ofelia Videla has resorted to “outside the box” thinking to drive customers to her restaurant.

“The last several months have been really tough for me,” Videla said. “We’re so far away from everything — from all the hustle of town, but we keep trying.”

Lately, business has been slow, she said, but, “I’m not complaining.”

And neither are customers, which makes Videla believe it’s the economy that keeping customers out of her restaurant.

“I’ve gotten no complaints about the food,” she said. “That’s the only other thing I can think of. For years, lunch business was very good for me. Now, it’s the night business that’s good and lunch is very slow.”

To drive more customers in at night, Videla began featuring the vocal talent of her brother-in-law, Richie Donofrio.

“We needed something that was different, you know,” she said. “So, my brother-in-law, he sing.”

Donofrio said he was happy to help.

“We needed something to lift things up,” he said. “Something to get more energy going in here.”

While Videla said she has not contemplated closing her doors — “as long as I pay my bills on time, I’m happy” — she has thought about changing locations. In fact, she has gone so far as to poll patrons on their opinions.

“I just don’t know,” she said. “My mother, she owns this building. I think about it, but wonder if it would be worth it. I just don’t know, but I’m not thinking so. We’ll see.”

Now gone:

“For sale” signs in front of other restaurants in town are no surprise. With consumers spending less money on leisure activities like eating out, the ability to make a living operating a restaurant gets harder.

By the end of 2008, five Andalusia restaurants — The Little Kitchen, Left Field Family Grill, Diamond “C” Steakhouse, Monterrey’s Mexican Restaurant and El Agave Mexican Restaurant, had all closed their doors.