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Restaurateurs optimistic that tide has turned

If restaurateurs weren’t declaring unfettered optimism about the economic outlook in the coming months, they were, at the very least, not expressing complete dread during the National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show in Chicago.

Observers said traffic at the show was up from a year ago and innovative solutions were on display to help companies streamline their operations with an eye to beefing up their bottom lines.

Anecdotally, heads of chain restaurant companies walking the floor said there were signs of economic recovery.

Steve Carley, chief executive of El Pollo Loco, which has as its core product citrus-marinated grilled chicken, said restaurant traffic at the chain had stabilized. He noted that average checks increased as well, thanks to new upscale menu offerings, such as marinated grilled steak and premium chicken sandwiches.

James Blystone, marketing director of quick-service chain Culver’s ButterBurgers & Frozen Custard, said guest traffic had yet to show signs of recovery, but profitability had improved due to labor management and inventory management systems that the company had introduced during the economic slump.

In a panel discussion on Saturday, corporate chefs from Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, Chili’s Grill and Bar, Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar and The Cheesecake Factory, who were also joined by fine-dining Chicago chef-restaurateur Rick Tramonto, warned against offering inferior products at lower prices during a difficult economy, as customers tend to respond in a negative manner.

“If you do burgers, do great burgers, if you do foie gras, do great foie gras,” Tramonto said.

At The Cheesecake Factory, small plates for between $3 and $6 have given customers the option of foregoing larger main courses for smaller portions that seemed affordable and healthful, said Bob Okura, vice president of culinary development and corporate executive chef. Even though the menu offered lower price points, check averages at the chain were on the rise as a result of the menu revamp, he noted.

Even Louisiana restaurateurs expressed hope in the face of the massive ongoing oil-spill that threatens seafood in the Gulf of Mexico. At a press conference at the National Restaurant Association booth on the show floor, Ralph Brennan and Tommy Cvitanovich, who operate restaurants in Louisiana, said they were confident their board of health and other regulatory agencies were being thorough in their assessment of area fisheries.

Cvitanovich said that, although almost half of the area’s fisheries were closed last week as precautionary measures until the water was tested, seafood production was at nearly 80 percent of its usual volume.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected].

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