Restaurants adjust to leaner times

May 19, 1993|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Source: May 1, 1993, issue, Restaurants & Institutions magazineStaff Writer

A year ago, chef Michael Gettier was importing fish fro France, paying $200 a pound for Perigord truffles and serving a clientele that didn't dare arrive without a reservation.

Now he won't serve a veal chop because it's too pricey. He's cooking chicken -- something he hasn't done in a restaurant for years. And when customers drop by at closing, as they did last week, he's likely to set the table himself and race to the kitchen to rustle up some soup or a salad.

"People used to talk about where they could go to spend the biggest bucks and impress their cohorts the most. Now they're looking for just the opposite. They want less song and dance and a better meal," says Mr. Gettier, the former executive chef of Mount Vernon's now-defunct Conservatory who recently opened M. Gettier Restaurant in Fells Point.

It's a brave new restaurant world. Baltimore's old guard is dwindling. The new money-makers are often family-friendly chains, casual cafes or retro diners. And profit-hungry restaurateurs are scrambling to compete by improving service, slashing prices and even lowering standards.

Much is working against them. Corporate cutbacks have curtailed expense-account dining. Alcohol consumption is down. And the trend is toward lighter, more healthful and less expensive eating.

Menu prices across the country rose just two percent last year, the smallest increase since 1964, says Wendy Webster, spokeswoman of the National Restaurant Association in Washington.

"One thing the economy has done is to make careful consumers out of diners," she says. "They're bargain hunters now. The market's so competitive that if a restaurant across the road is offering a special value deal and you don't lower prices or offer coupons, you're going to lose your consumer."

In Baltimore, the times are even tougher.

This month, the trade magazine Restaurants & Institutions ranked Baltimore at the bottom of its list of the best cities in the South Atlantic region in which to open a restaurant. The No. 1 spot in the country, with a score of 173, was Ocala, Fla. Baltimore got just 64, 36 points below the average. (The scores were based on the number of restaurants in the area, sales per location and the median income of residents.)

The results came as no surprise to many area restaurateurs.

"It's a struggle to do business today," laments Hersh Pachino, owner of Hersh's Orchard Inn in Towson, where business is down 8 percent this year. "Our average check is $24 [per person]. That's the same as it's been for the last couple years."

'Crab-and-beer town'

Despite a cadre of creative, award-winning restaurants and hot new spots such as Mount Vernon's Citronelle, Baltimore still has a reputation as a crab-and-beer town. Diners here have long been considered trend-wary, cost-conscious and lovers of large portions.

"Baltimore is a backwater in terms of culinary trends," says Harold Marmulstein, executive chef of the Polo Grill. "There's not sophisticated dining clientele."

He was reminded of that after recently creating a new dish -- a marinated seafood salad of squid, octopus and rock shrimp. "We sold one order, and the person sent it back, saying it wasn't what they thought it would be," he says.

Timid taste buds aside, diners here do mirror those across the country. They want value, moderate prices and good service in a relaxed setting. And many also want a place they can take the kids.

More than half of all restaurants now make some accommodations for children -- whether it's by offering a different menu or complimentary toys, says Ms. Webster. A few pioneering restaurants in places such as Denver, Colo., and Chicago, Ill., are actually providing on-site child care or a separate children's dining room.

But baby boomers who have grown up in restaurants -- and who are now introducing their offspring to the dining experience -- are not easily impressed.

Customers more demanding

"Customers are demanding perfection," says Steve Rockwell, restaurant analyst with Alex. Brown & Sons Inc., an investment banking company.

"They know the difference between good service and bad service, a high-quality product and a low-quality product. . . . The most attractive segment of the market is the casual, full-service restaurant -- a Chili's kind of operation. It's not white tablecloth, and the average check can range from $5 to $20."

One person who realized early on that consumers want a sure thing is Bob Giaimo. After opening his first American Cafe in Georgetown, expanding to seven restaurants throughout the Baltimore-Washington area and then selling the chain in 1986, he shopped around for his next target.

Diners, Mr. Giaimo surmised, were the future. Three years later, he opened his first Silver Diner, with its neon signs and Formica counter tops and menu of meatloaf, mashed potatoes and gravy.

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