Restaurants coping with what economy’s serving

Increases in food and fuel prices have dished out some difficult times for local restaurant owners.


Teo Estrada, a co-owner of nine Mi Rancho Mexican restaurants, said the stagnant economy is dealing his businesses a tough blow.

"It doesn't seem like it's going to get any better quickly. We're struggling," Estrada said. "We're catching hell with the bills. We're not making money like the way we used to, just basically paying the bills. Everything has gone up, and we can't really go up (in prices) because of the people ... no jobs. It's bad."

Prices of meat, vegetables and other items have increased, along with fuel costs. Estrada checks prices carefully to get the best deal. "We choose to not raise the prices, but eventually we're going to have to," he said.

Estrada said he plans to keep all his restaurants open, but he has reduced his staff by two to three workers per restaurant in response to the decrease in sales.

The economy has affected business at 1102 Bar & Grill, Blue Sky Kitchen and Soy Noodle House on Broad Street, but the restaurants are surviving, owner Sae Shin said.

"Overall, sales have dropped a little bit," Shin said. "I had to tighten up everything as far as labor costs. My crew understands, but we had to cut back a little bit here and there. We have loyal customers that keep coming, and I haven't raised the price on the menu even though food costs have gone up.

"Consumers realize when something jumps up a dollar per menu price. We're trying to hang in there for this year. My staff works extra hard for the time that they're here. That helps out a lot."

Shin has cut back on entertainment acts. He has adjusted his staffing numbers to match the number of restaurant patrons.

In spite of tough times, Shin has doubled the size of Soy Noodle House by expanding into the space next door and adding a full bar and more tables. Also, he took over Blue Sky Kitchen from another owner in June and extended hours to add dinner.

Some restaurant owners are finding success in the tough economy, though. Business is up by 15 percent over last year at French Market Grille in Surrey Center, owner Chuck Baldwin said.

"In general, we've had a surprisingly strong summer," Baldwin said. "The best we've had in four or five years. I've heard a lot of people just anecdotally say that it's been kind of grim for them. I kind of pinch myself every day and just hope that it keeps going."

He attributes success to promotions and Internet marketing. He also believes good service and hospitality have played a role.

"I've got a really, really competent staff person focused on IT (information technology). She just seems to do the right thing at the right time when it comes to the Web site," Baldwin said.

It's not easy to watch the bottom line constantly. At the beginning of the year, food prices escalated so quickly that he "could barely keep track of it"

"Since the crash of 2007, when the economy went in the tank, until now, it's taken us over three years to shift gears and be more frugal," Baldwin said. "That means taking every little factor of doing business, like insurance and linen service ... Rather than trying to cut corners and cut quality, it's just making sure you're not wasting money. Getting the best deal possible.

"It's a lot easier to gear up and get ready for Masters than to watch your pennies every day, like this economy dictates."

TakoSushi, which has five restaurants in Augusta, Aiken, Columbia and Greenville, S.C., is also faring well, owner Kevin Goldsmith said. Business has been up since Goldsmith opened the first restaurant seven years ago, and each one does better each year, he said.

"We have awesome business in all the stores every year. We've been very blessed," Goldsmith said. "We're very consistent. In this economy, I think the pricing is very good. I think a lot of the higher-end restaurants with the $40- to $70-a-head tabs have been struggling just because people aren't spending quite as much.

"People are always going to go out to eat. They're just going to go out maybe a little less and go to places that cost a little less."



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