Upscale Restaurants See Weak Sales in March, Mixed Sales for 2007

by Jamie Walden  on Monday, Jun. 2, 2008 12:00 am  

Bohm said So Restaurant sees many of its usual customers almost half as often. The diminishing frequency of large parties, however, is hurting the restaurant the most.

In the past, many pharmaceutical representatives frequently brought clients to So Restaurant. However, reps from several of those companies told Bohm that their dining budgets have been cut, in some cases by as much as 25 percent, he said.

So Restaurant isn't the only upscale restaurant experiencing vanishing customers. Aydelotte's in North Little Rock chalked up 30 percent less revenue in March 2008 than March 2007. Acadia plunged 25 percent in March, and Vermillion Water Grille dropped 23 percent. Even Brave New Restaurant, whose loyal customers followed it to its hard-to-find location in the Riverdale area of Little Rock, dropped 21 percent.

Owner Peter Brave said the restaurant's move several years ago somewhat tempered the 2001 recession. "I couldn't have planned it in a thousand years, but the newness of Brave New Restaurant coming to this current location, ... I couldn't have scripted it to be better timing because there's always an attraction of a new location."

Brave has made some belt-tightening changes to counteract this year's tumult. He quit advertising. Brave New Restaurant is closing in on two decades of operation and probably has the tenure to support such an action.

"But after 18 years I still feel like one of the strongest assets you have to have is nimbleness - the ability to make changes on the fly," Brave said. "It's great to have a plan A, but, boy, you better have a plan B."

There's always the exception to the rule; in this case there are two. Capers' revenue grew 11 percent in March 2008 compared with March 2007. Restaurant 1620 climbed 27 percent in March 2008 over the previous year.

Timothy Morton, general manager and executive chef of Restaurant 1620, said he has not done anything differently and has focused on maintaining consistent quality and service. Morton said tracking profitable dishes and ensuring that they stay on the menu while offering new dishes about every three months has helped maintain clientele.

A rise in revenue at two out of 13 upscale restaurants while the rest see sharp declines indicates that there is a demographic of diners that remains fairly, if not completely, unscathed by all the economic turbulence. That market segment just isn't large enough to support 13 restaurants.

In addition, the diners who are affected by the slowing economy are likely more conscious of value. That means the one thing that is non-negotiable in fine dining is quality, Brave said.

"If they're going to go ahead and go out and spend a few bucks on a meal, they want it to be good. And so it's even more important that you provide value for what you produce."




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