Restaurant barometer signals a good year for Maryland

August 25, 2004|By JAY HANCOCK

TO PERFORM research on the Maryland economy, I had to order the spinach salad with salmon, pine nuts, red onions and bleu cheese at Copra, the recently opened, Frank Lloyd Wrightish restaurant on Charles Street.

Really. Restaurants are economic electrocardiograms. When the economy thrives, they go gangbusters. When the business weather cools, they're often the first to show it.

And if places such as Copra and its competitors are any indication, Maryland restaurants and the Maryland economy are pointed at their best year in a long time.

"They've undergone a few problems, but this was the first year that they've actually seen big improvements," Melvin Thompson, vice president of government relations for the Restaurant Association of Maryland, said of his members. "It is sometimes a good indicator ... of what's going on throughout the economy."

Even during the 1990s boom, Maryland restaurants struggled to raise prices, hired desultorily and sometimes expired en masse for no apparent reason - marking a state economy that was late to the decade's expansion and didn't catch the national exuberance until it was almost over.

An unusual 4 percent plunge in Maryland's restaurant population between 1998 and 2000 might have signaled that not all was groovy beneath the stock bubble.

Subsequent performance - indifferent at best - reflected not only general malaise after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks but additional headaches such as sniper attacks and blizzards.

But this year, Maryland restaurateurs have been hiring at a pace not seen in at least a decade, in spite of Montgomery County's new smoking ban, which operators say has hurt business.

Maryland restaurants have added 10,000 employees since last summer, according to the Labor Department, hitting an all-time high of 178,000 for July for the biggest year-over-year gain in any month in any year at least since 1991.

Statewide restaurant and bar sales rose by 8 percent for the fiscal year ending June 30 - again, the best pace in at least 10 years and a sharp pop from the 2 percent gain for fiscal 2003, according to the Maryland comptroller's office.

And numerous restaurants are chopping their chioggia and firing their fryers for the first time. Maryland had 8,900 restaurants and bars at the end of last year - 250 more than a year earlier and 800 more than in 2000, the Labor Department says. The state lost 360 taverns and restaurants between 1997 and 2000.

Copra, whose owners spent $850,000 gutting the building and installing mission furniture, a stone fireplace and prairie-style hardwood and slate flooring, opened in June with about two dozen employees.

"We've done very well," says general manager Joseph Dunn II. "I'm shocked."

General managers always say that, but Dunn offers numbers.

"I expected to do well," he says. "But the last three weeks we've almost jumped up two grand a week" - to $15,000 in sales.

"That's 7, 8 percent, and right now is the slowest time of the year to be in the restaurant business. Especially on Charles Street," Dunn said.

He attributes the volume in part to dinner business from residents of downtown Baltimore's new apartments and condominiums. He wants to hit $25,000 a week this fall, add party and catering businesses and hire maybe a dozen more people.

Copra's debut coincides with a Baltimore restaurant boomlet. After shedding nearly 100 restaurants and bars at the end of the 1990s, the city has added more than 150 establishments since 2000.

Again, it might demonstrate bigger things, as Baltimore's overall job base shows signs of growing this year for only the fourth time since 1990.

This is already something of an overachieving restaurant town.

Households in metropolitan Baltimore spend an average of $2,198 annually on food away from home, according to the National Restaurant Association's Brad Dayspring.

That's way shy of Dallas' $2,979 or New York's $2,905, but it beats Philadelphia ($2,157) and Los Angeles ($2,192). Maybe, barring terrorists, snow, snipers, $2.50-a-gallon gas and overcooked crabs, we'll catch Chicago ($2,290).

Copra is a good place to start, by the way. The food was great.

Restaurants do not drive the economic train. They are effects, not causes. Maryland restaurants paid employees an average of only $13,516 last year, the government says. Tip generously!

But you'd probably rather have them proliferating, as they are now, than otherwise.

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