Local restaurant owners do business differently in troubled economy

Restaurant owners try to lure customers, cut costs

Restaurateurs are still eating more expenses to keep their doors open and their diners coming.


French Market Grille owner Chuck Baldwin said restaurant owners got away with making a few mistakes in the years before the recession. “Now you can’t.”

Baldwin has run his Cajun-inspired restaurant in Surrey Center for nearly three decades. The economy, he said, has required him to re-examine every aspect of how he operates the business.

In the first two months of 2012 alone, food costs went up by $30,000, Baldwin said.

And while Baldwin spent months with a consultant rearranging his menu and slightly raising prices, he said business owners often are forced to absorb the extra expenses.

“Our sales didn’t increase at all last year,” said Baldwin, adding that wife Gail, a co-owner of the restaurant, didn’t receive a paycheck last year for the first time since they’ve been in business. “People that own the business take a pay cut.”

February proved a difficult month for some local restaurant owners who shut down after years in the Augusta market. KFC franchisee Billy Wingate closed his three remaining restaurants in Columbia County, while Al’s Family Restaurant owner Butch Bone announced his North Augusta restaurant was closing after nearly 35 years in business. Both men cited the economy as main factors in their respective closures.

For Jeff Freehof, the owner of Garlic Clove Italian Eatery in Evans, escalated food prices continue to be a thorn in his side as he’s felt them for the past two years. Many companies also have tacked on an added fuel charge because of high gas prices, he said.

“It’s hard,” Freehof said. “Our profit margin has decreased.”

Baldwin’s largest expense is the payroll. Between 30 and 40 percent of every dollar coming into the restaurant is spent on paying one of Baldwin’s 50 employees, most of whom are hourly.

New federal regulations, such as the payroll tax that took effect in 2013, also hasn’t made business easy. French Market employees, across the board, saw a 2 percent increase in taxes out of their paychecks, Baldwin said.

“I was insulted,” he said. “I increased them (the paychecks) out of my pocket.”

At Rhinehart’s Oyster Bar, owner Amy Bailey said she chooses to focus on the positive, finding new ways of reaching customers at both the Augusta and Evans locations.

Sales were up last year at the Augusta restaurant and remained about the same in Evans, though there was a noticeable dip after the 2012 presidential election, she said. Business so far this year has been a little slower than usual, she added.

“You can’t let the economy depress you,” Bailey said, “because it is depressing.”

Diners increasingly want value and authenticity, she said. Making cuisine homemade, for instance, is a way to save on food costs and tastes better to customers, she said.

Bailey said she also isn’t afraid to change the menu and tap into free online venues, like YouTube and Urbanspoon.

“Whoever hustles and gives the customers what they want, that’s who wins,” she said.