Plan Your 2009 Restaurant Stimulus Strategy
By Margit Bisztray, Food Critic
I've been hearing a lot about the effect the economy is having on the restaurant business. Fast food restaurants are doing well (because there will always be people who think that price is the most important factor in a decision about food) but many other restaurants aren't. Many are closing, or contemplating closing. Unfortunately, this includes many very good restaurants I know. Restaurants that, just a short time ago, wouldn't have been worried at all, because they had full reservation lists and guests waiting for a table at the bar. This makes me sad, but it also makes me contemplate what makes a restaurant resilient to tough times and tightened budgets? How does a restaurant weather such conditions?
As with so many things, it really is up to adaptability. If a restaurant is stubborn about holding its ground, no matter what, and not adjusting to different conditions, chances are it will suffer. If a restaurant responds to the times, however, and shifts to adjust, they have a better chance. I know several fine dining restaurants that have, for example, introduced small plate or tapas options, which allow people to sit down and grab a bite for $10 or $12 (a manageable amount on most entertainment budgets). A bite and a drink at a restaurant is like a ticket––to relaxation, a social situation, an easy meal––and a ticket is still a good deal if it's under $20. Other restaurants are adjusting their menus to provide more comfort food and more substance. I think you'll see a return to the protein-and-starch combinations, away from the slab of raw tuna with the squiggle of carrot. People want a meal when they go out, not an hors d'oeuvre. I think more restaurants will also be offering early bird specials, prix fixe menus and lunch specials.
But there is something else, beyond what a restaurant offers as food. It's what a restaurant offers as a place for community. Some restaurants you go to because they symbolize a special occasion. Others are places you visit to feel like someone else––someone more glamorous or decadent than you are in everyday life. These are all fun excuses for going out, but I predict the restaurants who do the best in tough times are the ones where people go to feel most like themselves. Restaurants that feel like home, with owners or staff who feel like family: this is what people need the most right now. If, when you read that sentence, you know exactly what it means, then think about turning to that restaurant right now. You need them, and guess what? They need you too. Fast food joints are cheap, but they give you nothing in the way of community, warmth, relationships, home. That restaurant you thought of when you read the words "home" and "family" is part of where you live, and part of how you want to live, so keep it in mind when you plan your budget this month. The good ones are trying very hard to survive right now, so let's do our part to help them!
Happy New Year to all.
NOTE: Margit Bisztray has been reviewing restaurants and writing about food for ten years. She has published three editions of The Complete Key West Dining Guide, and her work has appeared in such publications as Vogue, Gourmet, Islands and Metropolitan Home. To read more restaurant reviews, log your own personal opinions, rate your favorite restaurants and watch streaming video archives of these shows and other reviews, visit Margit's Top 5.