Economic anxieties curb appetites

Sluggish economic activity over the past year has made for lean times at many La Cañada Flintridge restaurants, but local culinary entrepreneurs are optimistic that 2011 will bring resurgence in customers' appetites.

In 2010, locals continued a three-year trend of scaling back on dining out, making fewer visits and running up lower checks, said several restaurant owners.

At Berge's sandwich shop, a local institution at its current Foothill Boulevard location since 1979, sales started to rebound late last year but diners continue to purchase fewer beverages and side orders than before recession hit, according to manager John Yeghiaian.

While sandwich orders are down less than 10%, the restaurant sells as much as two-thirds fewer drinks with those sandwiches, he said.

"We're almost back to normal, and that's shocking given how much we were down at the midway point of the year. What hasn't come back, though, are the drinks and chips and salads. We've started giving out water cups at a phenomenal rate," Yeghiaian said.

Next door at Min's Kitchen Thai restaurant, owner Toi Vanasin has been holding prices steady and increasing portions despite higher supply costs.

"We still have many of the customers we're used to seeing, but they've cut down," said Vanasin, who this autumn saw lunch sales fall nearly 40% under previous years' levels. While dinner sales have been less hard hit, she also had to reduce shifts for kitchen and wait staff last year.

Though locals still crave his pizza at night and on weekends, weekday lunchtimes have also been slower for Georgee's Pizza owner George Jacobs.

"Look at the empty properties on Foothill: Those were my [lunch] customers — places I used to deliver to every week," said Jacobs, who started the business in 1980. "But we've been through this before, and it'll bounce back."

Blair Salisbury, past president of the Los Angeles Chapter of the California Restaurant Association and owner of the El Cholo restaurant in Pasadena, said that while pricier fine-dining locations continue to struggle, value-driven and fast-casual concepts are already seeing better times.

"Last year wasn't so good, but for the most part the outlook is pretty optimistic for a rebound in restaurants in 2011. People aren't buying yachts, but they are starting to eat out more," Salisbury said.

"It's almost fashionable to be frugal again," said Dish restaurant owner Kevin Finch.

Finch said Dish's 2010 sales matched 2009's, but the restaurant's bottom line has improved due to cost-cutting measures.

"In this economy, price-point is very important. We're not perceived as a very expensive restaurant, so you don't rule out going to Dish as you might rule out going to a Ruth's Chris or expensive seafood place," he said.

Peter Bissias, who took over Conrad's Family Restaurant from father Nick Bissias in May 2009, said lowering menu prices is one of several improvements he's making as he converts the location to the more rustic-themed Oakwood Café.

"I think consumers have become accustomed to a higher level of competition amongst restaurants in terms of promotions, like two-for-one deals," Bissias said. "Full-service or not, it doesn't matter because we're all competing against each other."

Cafe Solé owner Antonietta Costantino said local diners just don't seem as hungry as they've been in the past.

Since retaking control of the high-end Italian restaurant on Verdugo Boulevard from investors who had bought it from her three years ago but went bust, Costantino said staying open for lunch just doesn't pay, and weekday dinner traffic is down.

"Everybody's cutting back a little bit," she said, with more people paying a corking fee to bring their own wine to dinner rather than ordering bottles for the table.

But weekends often still see a rush, and on Friday night Costantino had to cut an interview short to help two large groups find a table in the already busy restaurant.

"I'm sorry," she said. "It's very busy tonight, and the customers come first."

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