Upscale Eateries Generally Enjoy Higher Sales in '06

by Mark Friedman  on Monday, Apr. 16, 2007 12:00 am  

Upscale restaurants in the Little Rock area generally enjoyed solid sales figures in 2006.

Eight of 13 fine-dining establishments selected by Arkansas Business reported increased food and nonalcoholic drink sales in 2006. Restaurant receipts are public information in cities — like Little Rock and North Little Rock — that levy a local-option sales tax on hotels and restaurants.

The biggest revenue growth was reported by Ristorante Capeo in downtown North Little Rock. Its sales jumped 20.9 percent in 2006, from $417,067 to $504,165.

The highest-grossing upscale restaurant in 2006 was Sonny Williams Steak Room in the River Market. It took in $1.97 million in 2006, which amounted to a 1.2 percent increase over 2005 and only about $2,500 short of moving it into the rankings of the 30 highest-grossing restaurants in Little Rock. (Click here to purchase a downloadable spreadsheet.)

Peter Brave, owner of Brave New Restaurant in Little Rock, said an improved economy in 2006 helped push people through the doors of more upscale restaurants. But that isn’t the whole picture.

“I think it’s more a lifestyle,” Brave said. “I think that people are just moving faster. And although they’ve got nice kitchens in most of their houses, people … just want to have a nice meal outside of their house.”

And it looks like there’ll be no shortage of reservations in 2007. The National Restaurant Association 2007 forecast predicts Arkansas restaurant sales rising 5.4 percent, from $2.87 billion in 2006 to $3.03 billion in 2007.

Other upscale restaurants in Little Rock are also planning on bigger checks in 2007.
Owner Donnie Ferneau, an American cuisine restaurant in Little Rock with 130 seats, has already seen strong gains since it opened in January 2005. Ferneau reported food sales of $733,323 in 2006, an 11.8 percent increase over 2005.

Ferneau, who will turn 32 this week, credits his staff for the restaurant’s popularity.
“We have the best service in town,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how great a chef is; it’s how great the team works together.”

He also tries to provide a high-quality dish every time.

“Once a chef loses that mentality, once they think it becomes easy, is when those restaurants start to fail,” he said.

Some See Sales Slip

But not every upscale restaurant saw its numbers increase last year. Of five that saw sales slip, the largest decrease was sustained by Nu Cuisine & Lounge in Little Rock’s River Market district.

Its sales fell more than 22 percent in 2006 to $796,816, compared with over $1.02 million in 2005. Nu, which opened in November 2004, had its best month right after it opened in December 2004 with sales of $127,168.

A spokeswoman for the restaurant did not return a call for comment.

Restaurant 1620 and Ciao Baci, both in Little Rock, were the only two restaurants on the list that have experienced two consecutive years of lower sales. Restaurant 1620, which sold over $1 million worth of food in 2004, saw its sales slide 12.8 percent in 2005 and another 3 percent in 2006. Its total last year was $912,000.

A spokesman for the restaurant couldn’t be reached for comment.

Similarly, Ciao Baci’s sales slumped 24.4 percent in 2005 and another 3.1 percent in 2006, during which its food sales totaled $316,817.

Ciao Baci’s owner, Suzanne Boscarolo, said she isn’t worried about the drop in food sales because the restaurant’s alcohol sales — taxed by the state and not subject to the Freedom of Information Act — have made up for the loss.

“We are not really a high-end fine-dining restaurant,” she said. “We wanted to be a wine bar … then started selling more main courses because people wanted a little bit more food.”

A 14th upscale restaurant, So Restaurant-Bar, opened in Hillcrest in January 2006 and racked up $1.2 million in sales in its first year. That was good enough to rank No. 5 among the upscale crowd last year, behind Sonny Williams, Trio’s, Brave New and Capers.

Even though his sales slipped 1.9 percent in 2006, Vermillion Water Grille owner Mike Selig isn’t worried.

Selig attributes the slight drop-off to the street construction work involved in extending the Central Arkansas Transit Authority’s River Rail trolley line to the Clinton Presidential Library. To install the tracks, a section of Commerce Street outside Vermillion was ripped apart for much of 2006. But now the trolley is rolling by the restaurant.

“With the trolley coming by … it can only help with visibility,” Selig said.
Selig said he plans on luring people to the restaurant in the summer by holding shrimp and crawfish boils on the patio.

“We’re defiantly going to get to their senses. That’s for sure,” he said.
Sonny Williams’ owner, Jimmy Young, said his plate is full with the customers he has, and he isn’t planning to expand.

“We’re just going to make this restaurant the best it can [be],” Young said.




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