Waiting for the post-recession crowds

The Great Recession officially ended in the summer of 2009. So diners have flocked back to restaurants, filling tables and tip pockets, right? It depends on who you ask.

Some restaurants have hung on to their low prices to try to keep customers coming through their doors, others have turned to social media outlets like Groupon, and others are just trying to hold on until the holidays, hoping to get a boost from winter shoppers.

At La Cabañita, a Mexico City-style restaurant in Montrose, the still-sluggish economy isn’t keeping diners away. “We’re doing well. Business was down for a bit, but now it’s back up,” said manager Jocelyn Ramos. “It never really hit bottom for us, but now it’s steady.”

She attributes the longtime restaurant’s success to reasonable prices, its lunch specials, and, just maybe, its popular margaritas.

The National Restaurant Assn.’s index charting the health of the industry has been up and down in 2011, and the group has noted that 40% of people polled said they were not dining out or ordering takeout as often as they would like.

Diners aren’t coming to Lola’s Peruvian Restaurant as often as owner Jenaro Balarezo would like. “It’s bad right now. Since the recession things are not going well,” said Balarezo, who has Lola’s branches in Van Nuys and on Brand Boulevard in Glendale. He says business had picked up a little but dipped again recently. “These last two months dropped at least 10%,” he said. “I don’t see where the recession is over.”

But he said the restaurant is planning to outlast the economic downturn, working with Groupon to bring in new customers, despite not making as much profit on the bargain certificates. He’s hoping once diners taste Lola’s ceviche and other specialties they’ll come back, without a Groupon.

“We’re planning to stay here,” he said. “We’re just hoping for the recession to stop. We’re trying to get new customers for the future.”

Daniel Conway, legislative and public affairs director for the California Restaurant Assn., said many restaurants are still struggling.

“It continues to be a tough time in California. You still kind of see these waves of restaurants in different communities, even having persevered the last few years, these waves of restaurants closing because consumer spending hasn’t come back to where it was.”

Restaurateurs are realizing that more consumers are focusing on value, Conway said, and offering bargains or longer happy hours.

“Consumers are very focused on how their money is being spent,” he said. And some of the businesses that are surviving are altering menus, using social media to promote their offers. “You’ve found a way to make your business be as lean and mean as possible,” he said of restaurateurs.

Consumers’ focus on value may have brought more customers to one longtime area eatery. Porto’s Bakery and Cafe, in Glendale, Burbank and Downey, has tried to keep its prices low for the families who come in for its Cuban-style food. “We knew all along who our clients were,” said co-owner Betty Porto. “So our price point has always been lower.”

“We’re having more people coming now. Maybe we’ve picked up some new customers,” Porto said. “Some of the ones going to higher-end [restaurants] and spending more for lunch are realizing they can get good food for less money.”

“We have an advantage in the sense that we’ve been doing this for so long. We’ve been doing this for 40 years,” Porto said of the family business. “So people know your food and know you have a passion for what you do.”

And they know they can get a Cuban sandwich for $4.85.

“My brother’s always been so dead-set against raising prices,” Porto said. “Now it’s paying off.”

It’s also paying off for restaurateurs whose specialties are trending big.

“We’ve been doing pretty well, especially because it’s the holiday season. It’s pretty steady,” said Daniel Andrecht, a waiter at Chado Tea Room in Pasadena. “We’ve had reviews and articles that have given us a lot of new customers. Tea’s coming up right now, and we get mentioned because we have a large selection … We’re in an up-and-coming trend.”

Location and clientele make a difference as well, says Tina Khalaf, office manager for the family of restaurants that includes Black Cow Cafe and the Star Cafe in Montrose as well as Clancy’s Crab Broiler, Hamburger Central and Jax Bar and Grill in Glendale. “Things still did not pick up like we’d like them to,” she said, adding that the Montrose locations are faring better because of the higher volume of families. The Glendale locations depend more on lunchtime business dining, which hasn’t increased as much as hoped. “It’s the holidays, so it’ll pick up soon,” she said. “We’re all in the same boat.”

REBECCA BRYANT is a freelance writer who’s written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, Caribbean Travel & Life and other publications.

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