Survival of the foodest

Local restaurants and clubs are adjusting prices and menus to keep their businesses and customers full
by Richard Foss
Published July 2, 2009

“The Lakers affected us more than the recession,” said restaurateur Michael Franks. “When they played, Chez Melange was quiet, but Bouzy was very busy.”
The burgers at Bouzy, the gourmet pub attached to Chez Melange in Redondo Beach’s Riviera Village, cost more than their counterparts at most sports bars, but they’re vastly better. The fact that Bouzy is selling so many of them – as well as pulled pork sandwiches, truffle fries, and more eclectic dishes – is a sign of the unlikely health of the local restaurant business. There are opportunities even in troubled times, and some operators are doing very well – it’s the surprisingly consistent story you hear from local restaurant owners. Some even report that business is up.
“I haven’t seen any drop-off – we’re having an excellent year,” Mike Trutanich, owner of Tony’s on the Redondo Pier, said. “In fact we’re getting a younger crowd. Perhaps when people are stressed out they want to come to the pier to relax a bit. We’re doing what we’ve always done. I think people enjoy that we always serve soup, salad, and a side dish with everything – you know your budget and what you’re getting.”
Indeed, that seems to be the trend across – restaurants that used to serve everything a la carte are offering midweek menus at a fixed price, and they have been broadly successful at bringing in customers. This has led to a flattening of the price curve in the area; there are now few restaurants in the South Bay where you can’t get a full dinner for under $20midweek. Of course, there are more expensive items on those menus, and restaurateurs hope that diners will come in for the special and be attracted to something else once they’re seated. Even if they do, the prices on regular entrees have often dropped. Franks noted that at Chez Melange, “We’re thinking more about price points, so that we’re competitive. On our menu, we have nothing over $26 now. When we started off we had items up to $36.”
Reducing prices at fine restaurants in a time when food costs are increasing is tricky. Customers will notice if the specials are out of character with the rest of the experience. As Melba Rodriguez of Chef Melba’s puts it, “I believe that if you cut corners, it’s going to show. I buy whatever’s fresh at the farmer’s market and use it in my specials, but I would do that anyway. You have to spend where it shows. I’m still using the best baseball scallops because people love them, and I sell about 24 pounds a week.”
You might expect that a restaurateur would figure on making up lost revenue in the beverage department, but wine prices have been falling even at places that cater to serious wine aficionados. Manager Chris Hennessey of Brix said, “Our wine prices have dropped significantly; my average bottle of wine went from $80 to $60 to $50. We changed our whole pricing strategy, selling at much closer to the price you’d get at a wine store.” Michael Franks said that he’s focusing on wines from $25 to $40, and mused, “Give people value for money and they will spend less money, but come back more often.”
So if restaurants have to cut food and wine prices, where do they make up the bottom line? In some cases, on staff. Hennessey said that at Brix, “We have still maintained the integrity of our menu and wine program, but we’re doing it with fewer people – we started out with a staff to customer ratio like no other in the area, and it just wasn’t sustainable. We’ve had to let a few people go, but it hasn’t hurt our standard of service.”
Still, there haven’t been wholesale job cuts in the industry. A restaurateur who asked not to be named said, “I’m not getting deluged with applications from experienced people – not at all. I have someone I’d like to fire, but it’s still hard to find people who know food and wine and understand customer service. Anyone who has someone like that is doing everything possible to keep them.”
Restaurant owners look to two factors to help their bottom lines. The first is summer tourists. Francesca at Sangria keeps an eye on the weather. “We’re seeing a hit midweek, and our weekend lunches haven’t been as busy as usual, but then again we haven’t really had a summer yet. The weather has been so dismal the past few weeks... we had a pair of sunny days and business shot up.”
It may also help that many South Bay locals are incurably optimistic about their own chances in any economy. The manager at an upscale sushi bar said “January through March, our business was off 25 percent. I think that after that, the people who still had jobs decided, hey, I’m still working, I’m going to enjoy the lifestyle I’m accustomed to. Our business has picked right back up to where it was last year.”
For the remainder of the summer, restaurants expect full houses, a mix of price-conscious locals who dine often and tourists who have canceled overseas vacations and splurge close to home. ER