Clyde’s Rx for tough times: Steak, more efficient operations

WASHINGTON Let them eat steak. That’s the rallying cry at Clyde’s Restaurant Group here as it tries to keep its seats filled — and its accountants happy — amid waves of bad news about the economy.

The 13-restaurant company is wielding discounts to lure penny-pinching customers while taking a hard look at operations to preserve margins. The objective is to offer steak at a price that’s within patrons’ budgets, but at an overall cost that fits the restaurants’ financial objectives as well.

Discounting was the key topic at the company’s monthly management meeting in December. Those meetings are attended by the chefs and general managers of all the restaurants within Clyde’s fold, which includes seven Clyde’s casual restaurants, the landmark Old Ebbitt Grill and the high-end 1789 Restaurant.

The New Year kicked off with a deep-discount promotion. For a relative bargain of $16.95, diners get an 8-oz. portion of filet mignon, fresh sauteed spinach and mashed potatoes. In better times, that same meal would fetch $24.95, representing a discount of only a few dollars, said Tom Meyer, executive vice president of Clyde’s.

The company sold 35,000 of the steak dinners in January and continued the promotion into February because of its popularity. “It was a significant part of our business,” Meyer said. Next is a special of rockfish with sauteed spinach and thin-cut sweet potato fries for $15.95.

By offering deals that “get somebody off the couch,” said Meyer, the company expects to keep sales near the 2007 level of $109 million. It’s a matter of addressing the difficult economic conditions that are seemingly afflicting all of full-service dining.

“You can’t sit around and pretend it is not happening,” Meyer said. “My philosophy is to sharpen your pencil on one side and very much control your costs, and on the other to offer the best value. You have to offer real value and that doesn’t mean 10 percent off.”

The company is looking at ways to cut costs without impacting the dining experience. For instance, when cloth napkins arrive from the linen supplier, if there are a few bad ones in the bunch, the staff applies for a credit rather than let that small expense slide. Those little savings add up, Meyer said.

Another tactic concerns thawing calamari and shrimp. Typically the restaurants run the products under water, as opposed to the more time-consuming option of slacking out the seafood in the refrigerator. That rushing water adds up in the utility bills, so now that practice has been traded for the refrigerator method, Meyer said.

Clyde’s works with its purveyors to help absorb the high cost of deep discounts like the filet mignon.

“If we are discounting deeply to our customers, we expect our purveyors to sharpen their pencils,” he said. “You should always do this, but especially in tough economic times."

To handle the rush of orders from these specials, Clyde’s creates training videos that are given to each location so the chef and kitchen staff can get up to speed. For the filet mignon, an extra crew member might be deployed to the broiler from the saute station. Meyer’s biggest concern is that the food will run out. “Just make sure you have enough in the house,” he said.

Meyer said Clyde’s may make little profit off the discounts, but they do help fill seats.

“There is nothing worse than an empty restaurant,” he said. “It just sucks out the energy.”