Restaurants Cook Up Survival Strategies
RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
Eating out at a fine restaurant is one luxury fewer Americans can afford. In fact, one food industry group projects a decline of at least 12 percent in fine dining sales. That has many places trying new ways of drawing in customers or cutting corners.
NPR's Yuki Noguchi visited some restaurants in Washington, D.C. and has this report.
YUKI NOGUCHI: In the shadow of Georgetown University, 1789 is one of those restaurants where the food, the mood and the clientele all convey a sense of richness.
WILLIAM WATTS: The siding is actually barn siding from around 1865.
NOGUCHI: William Watts is general manager. Business, he says, is down eight to 10 percent since last year. They've cut back some hours and laid off one person.
WATTS: You know, at one time Sunday nights was a tremendous night because the convention business coming into town.
NOGUCHI: But that has all but gone away, and this plate isn't uncommon. Many high-end restaurants rely on business travelers and the corporate account crowd for as much as 70 percent of their business. Now instead, they're trying to cater to a local audience that feels a little less affluent.
To do that, a few months ago 1789 started offering a permanent $40 prix fixe menu with three courses - a discount of roughly 60 percent off the normal cost. Selling more for less has meant more traffic, but it also makes things harder for executive chef Daniel Giusti and his staff.
DANIEL GIUSTI: To put nice things on a menu that we can still serve here in this restaurant and charge $40 for it for three courses is quite difficult. So, it provides more work for us in the long run.
NOGUCHI: It means spending time looking for deals on ingredients and it also means spending more time spending more skill to make cheaper ingredients taste better. To demonstrate, Giusti opened a huge metal door at the rear of the kitchen.
GIUSTI: This is the walk-in, so this is where we keep all our food.
NOGUCHI: He says the typical rabbit leg, for example, yields only three ounces of meat. But with some extra butchering, some meat can be harvested off the front leg, which in turn can be used to make a sausage.
GIUSTI: So, taking the loin and the rest of the meat that I spoke of from the front leg, adding some fat, some herbs, seasoning, and making sausage out of them. Not only is it delicious but at the same time, obviously, adding some value.
NOGUCHI: The same goes for larger game. Giusti now orders larger portions of fish, pork and beef, not only to save money on butchering, but also to be able to use the extra trimmings. What was once just fatty discards now becomes sausage or bacon.
The economizing seems to work. Weekends at the restaurant are fully booked, and about half of their customers order the $40 prix fixe. Not all segments of the restaurant business are having to work harder to do well. Bars, taverns and fast food are all expected to grow this year.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)
NOGUCHI: Ray's Hell-Burger in Arlington, Virginia is apparently not suffering in this economy. It serves one thing and one thing only: burgers.
MICHAEL LANDRUM: The style here that we're striving for is actually, sort of really, just down and dirty but with a very, very high quality product.
NOGUCHI: That's owner Michael Landrum. A basic burger costs $6.95, and there's no wait service so there's no tips. Despite opening last summer, just in time for the height of the financial crisis, Landrum says business keeps increasing. He takes the scraps from his steakhouse a few doors down, grinds them into thick 10-ounce patties. It puts off a carnivorous perfume that wafts into the parking lot and draws Gabriel Dumagi(ph) in.
GABRIEL DUMAGI: I try to keep it to once a week 'cause if I do it too much more, I think I'll have to live on a treadmill. But it's amazing so it's worth it.
NOGUCHI: Dumagi is a real estate agent who has felt the pinch of lower home prices. And like many Americans buying more from the grocery store, he started more at home to save money.
DUMAGI: You used to not think as much about going out frequently. You know, eating lunch and dinner out wasn't a real big - you wouldn't even think about it, you'd just go do it.
NOGUCHI: It's relatively late for lunch - three in the afternoon - but as Dumagi waits for his Diablo Burger with Muenster cheese and sautÃ©ed sherry mushrooms, it's standing room only. He gestures towards a liquid dispenser and Dixie cups sitting on the counter.
DUMAGI: Have you tried their hot chocolate? It's pretty ridiculous too.
NOGUCHI: This is a free service for waiting customers because there's always a line.
DUMAGI: Yeah, right?
NOGUCHI: What is that, like, goat cheese melted or something?
DUMAGI: I think it's just butter. I think they just put butter and chocolate in it because it's too darn good to be anything else.
NOGUCHI: Then, within moments, Dumagi's burger arrives. With the cheese, pickles and the bun, it's stacked at least six inches high. He carefully cuts it down to edible size and delicious-looking juices soak the bottom bun. Then he leans in.
DUMAGI: Just like daddy likes it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
NOGUCHI: Yuki Noguchi, NPR News.
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