Thursday, February 12, 2009

Recipe for preventing a disaster
by Susan Puckett
Georgia Online News Service

When profits from his Brunswick, Ga., restaurant dipped late last year along with the national economy, chef-owner Jayson Ridinger closed the doors for good. But rather than hang up his apron, he and his sommelier wife, Christie, the restaurant's namesake, strolled down the block of this old seaport town and bought Cargo Portside Grill. One of the state's most celebrated restaurants outside of Atlanta, Cargo was closing after its owner also decided to call it quits.

Some people called Ridinger crazy for pinning his dreams on yet another restaurant venture during this economic downturn. But he got a "fantastic deal" on the property, he says, along with better equipment, and an opportunity to build upon the followings of two popular restaurants.

"Sure, I'm worried," Ridinger admits. "My butt is on the line. But I'm not going to let fear grip me. I'm attacking this situation."

Times are hard for all small businesses, but especially for the independent restaurant. With a cash-strapped population watching its dining dollars ever more closely, restaurant owners around the nation and in Georgia are constantly seeking inventive ways to attract new customers, while keeping the regulars coming back.

The Chicago-based consulting firm Technomic Inc., for instance, is predicting 2009 will be the worst year for foodservice since it began tracking the industry's performance 37 years ago. The firm says all food service sales are expected to fall 2.2 percent this year (4.7 percent factoring in inflation). And full-service restaurants will suffer even more — with sales falling 6 percent (8.5 percent with inflation.)

It's not just the people who work in them who feel the effects when restaurants — especially those of the mom-and-pop variety — fail. So do the communities, and the people they serve.

"We hate it when we lose a good restaurant," says Linda Harris, the assistant director for community and economic development for Decatur, a small city within metro Atlanta that prides itself on its variety of independent eateries. "Each has its own personality. The people who work there are connected to the community. We know them; they know us. They help make Decatur what it is."

And they help draw residents like Kerry Ludlam and her husband, Jim. They moved to Decatur six years ago — in part, she says, "because we didn't want to live somewhere where Jocks and Jills and Chili's were our only dining options."

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With a 20-month-old daughter and another child on the way, they continue to patronize restaurants whose owners and employees they have come to know.

"We've developed sentimental attachments to them," says Ludlam, who works as the public relations director for the Arthritis Foundation. "It's where some of our favorite memories have been made. I celebrated my 28th birthday at Carpe Diem. My boss offered me my job at [coffee shop] Java Monkey. After our daughter's christening, we went to Watershed."

The three restaurants represent a nice spectrum of downtown Decatur's indie offerings; Carpe Diem is an arty bistro, Java Monkey is a coffee shop and Watershed features the contemporary Southern cuisine of chef Scott Peacock.

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Chain restaurants have financial advantages in that they can save costs on products bought and shared in bulk, and reap the exposure of national advertising campaigns. But independent restaurants, industry experts note, have an opportunity to connect intimately with their clientele in ways that most cookie-cutter eateries can't.

"They know who's in their trading area and it's easier for them to figure out what works best," says Nancy Kruse, a dining trends analyst and menu consultant based in Atlanta.

She points out that they also have the advantage of tweaking the menu, throwing or participating in an event or offering a special deal as they see fit, without waiting the six to nine months it typically takes for a new initiative to cut through the corporate layers of a national chain.

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Robby Kukler, a partner of the Atlanta-based Fifth Group Restaurants, believes the reason his five restaurants are "hanging tough" is because "we're going into neighborhoods and becoming part of those neighborhoods."

Each one, he says, offers a dining experience tailored to its location: upscale Southern food at South City Kitchen in Midtown and Vinings; modern European cuisine served up with a happening scene at the expansive Ecco in Midtown; refined Italian fare in an intimate atmosphere at La Tavola Trattoria in the heart of Virginia-Highland, innovative Mexican dishes and margaritas at El Taco further down the street closer to Morningside.

They take part in neighborhood charity events, and were among more than 20 local restaurants that participated in a "dine out" to raise money for crime-fighting efforts following the recent murder of bartender John Henderson at Standard Food & Spirits in Grant Park.

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It's not unusual, says Harris, for local restaurants to band together in tough times — as Decatur eateries have done recently following the fire that destroyed a longstanding pub, Trackside Tavern, and heavily damaged nearby Fifth Earl Market. Several have hosted fundraisers to help them rebuild. "Even though they're competitors, they all know it's for the good of the community."

Local restaurants that are succeeding "realize that 80 percent of their customers live within a three- to-five-mile radius and a driving distance of no more than 20 minutes," says David Pavesic, professor of hospitality administration at Georgia State University's Robinson College of Business.

When a waiter asks a customer questions like, "Have you been here before?" "How long has it been since your last visit?" and "How did you hear about us?" they aren't just being hospitable, Pavesic points out. They're gathering vital information about their clientele — most importantly, whether they are first timers or repeat customers — and passing it on to management so they can plan promotions accordingly.

If the demographic skews younger and hipper, starting a fan page on Facebook or joining conversations via some other social-networking tool, such as Twitter, can be a tremendous publicity generator.

Check out the MySpace page for Cine', the independent movie theater in Athens that shares space with The National, one of the city's most popular restaurants, especially among the academic set. There you'll find information about the dinner-and-a-movie special offered Mondays and Tuesday evenings: For $25, a diner gets a movie ticket, tapas and a two-course prix-fixe dinner.

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Teri Rodgers relies heavily on grassroots marketing efforts — advertised primarily in her e-newsletter — to ensure her restaurant, Feast, located on a tucked-away street several blocks from the main drag in Decatur, remains on the locals' minds.

On one slow, dreary Sunday last December, she sent out an e-mail blast to subscribers notifying them that, for that night only, they could get two entrées for the price of one by telling their waiter the secret password: tiramisu.

As a result, "We were slammed — running around like crazy," Rogers said. "Customers came up to me and said, 'Money's tight right now, and I really appreciate you doing this.'"

Pavesic praises strategies like Rodgers'.

"It works because it's going to regular customers," he says." That same message broadcast to everyone in that zip code probably would not get that response."

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Back in Brunswick, in his first month of business, Ridinger has developed a smorgasbord of survival tactics customized to his own clientele: Reduce menu prices slightly, but keep the food the same. Supplement with catering and special events, and continue to sell the gourmet ice cream product he developed, Moo Cow Ice Cream, to other businesses on the side.

And "beat the bushes," he says, for every customer he can get.

He goes door to door passing out flyers to every business in the area. He sends out free samples of oysters Rockefeller and tiny tastes of crabcake before diners get their first course. He's offering hands-on cooking classes and giving impromptu behind-the-scenes tours to curious patrons peering through the porthole into the bustling kitchen.

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While everyone these days could use a price break, restaurant owners must take care in how they offer one. Ridinger doesn't advertise discounts or offer coupons, he says, because he wants his customers to rest assured the quality of the food has not changed.

Atlanta's Fifth Group Restaurants shares that philosophy. Instead of discounts, they look for more subtle ways to increase traffic. For instance, they offer redeemable points to frequent guests of their five local restaurants who sign up for their loyalty rewards program. Prizes range from a $25 gift certificate, to a private, four-course wine dinner for 30 guests at the Fifth Group restaurant of their choice.

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Jason Hill, chef-owner of Wisteria in Atlanta's historic Inman Park neighborhood, is also constantly honing his formula for success in ways that don't involve a whisk or a chef's knife.

Besides running the kitchen of his eight-year-old restaurant, he's carefully monitoring the analytics of his newly updated website, and the traffic generated by Google ads he's placed. He pays close attention to how many reservations are made online and how many by phone, and what time of day they make them.

When someone pointed out to him that the upbeat music that came on when a person clicked onto his website could be a distraction during work hours, he removed it.

He'll tell you Wisteria's sales were up $90,000 in 2008, but his other restaurant in Virginia-Highland, Pozole, was "down a little. I got a little nervous, so I started doing some specials — like $2 margaritas and tacos on Wednesday nights. Now we're back up 5 or 10 percent."

He's so confident, in fact, that he's even planning to open another restaurant this year.

Taking such a risk, even now, may not be a bad idea, says Pasevic, the Georgia State business professor. So long as they've done their homework, crunched the numbers, and haven't overlooked the most important detail of all.

"They better have really, really good food," he says. "If meatloaf is their specialty, it better be the best meatloaf I've ever tasted."


Editor's note: Hello, Georgia! Before I get into two news stories for today, I want to call your attention to articles we're moving on the Georgia Online News Service (GONSO) that are crafted for weekend editions – and, of course, this weekend is Valentine's Day. In commemoration of the day of hearts, we'll send you a sweetheart of a column on Friday by Jeanne Bonner. On subjects other than the Cupid beat, one of Georgia's most respected food and restaurant writers, Susan Puckett, has a good weekender (or, good any day) article among today's line up on how eateries across the state are struggling to survive during the economic downturn. And, if you want a weightier piece to digest over the weekend, I'll author an analysis tomorrow on how "economic development" measures in the General Assembly are bad business for citizens. Also moving tomorrow will be a story with two versions – one geared to the entire state, the other targeted to Atlanta – by Jeanne Bonner on the innovative ideas condo developers are coming up with to sell units. Finally, veteran Atlanta journalist Maynard Eaton will have an article tomorrow on what's happening with the Legislature's black caucus.

Today, we have two thought-provoking pieces on the Legislature. Lyle Harris gives us some important background on Georgia Power's scheme to "pay it forward" financing for future nuclear plants. And, Maggie Lee writes about how state officials are already planning how to carve up the anticipated stimulus dollars that will flow from Washington.

As always, we'd like to hear from you. GONSO is an enterprise founded and staffed by more than two dozen leading journalists and media executives in Georgia. We're providing content free -- for a limited period. Newspapers, broadcasters, bloggers and websites are welcome to use our articles -- please credit the writers and the Georgia Online News Service.

Send your comments and any story ideas to executive editor John Sugg at john.sugg@georgiaonlinenews.org. You can also call us at 800-891-3459.


Today's GONSO

Governor Perdue: Deliver us from the land of nuclear make believe

by Lyle Harris
Georgia Power, the state's largest utility, has been living in a regulatory fantasyland for so long that it has grown accustomed to all its wildest dreams coming true --facts be damned. Now, after the state Senate has ignored mounting public outrage over a bill that would force the utility's residential customers into paying upfront financing costs for two nuclear reactors, there's scant hope that the company's legislative pixies will return to reality anytime soon.
Full Story

Legislature Takes Time Sizing up Federal Funds

by Maggie Lee
Georgia's taking its own path in deciding to declare a split legislative session this year, in hopes of some manna from Washington that might help the state plug an $2.2 billion budget gaps. But now that the federal stimulus package is all but approved, Georgia's going to have to shift from what one state legislator calls "hoping and praying" for federal aid, to planning what to do with the state's highly earmarked portion.
Full Story

Recipe for preventing a disaster

by Susan Puckett
When profits from his Brunswick, Ga., restaurant dipped late last year along with the national economy, chef-owner Jayson Ridinger closed the doors for good. But rather than hang up his apron, he and his sommelier wife, Christie, the restaurant's namesake, strolled down the block of this old seaport town and bought Cargo Portside Grill. One of the state's most celebrated restaurants outside of Atlanta, Cargo was closing after its owner also decided to call it quits.
Full Story

Tomorrow's Budget
FOR ATLANTA: Sometimes you do have to reinvent the wheel – if you want to sell condo units in this real estate market
by Jeanne Bonner
FOR AREAS OUTSIDE OF ATLANTA: Sometimes you do have to reinvent the wheel – if you want to sell condo units in this real estate market
by Jeanne Bonner
Valentine's Day Done My Way
by Jeanne Bonner
The Audacity of Hype
by Ralph Reed

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