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Feeling the bite, restaurants add small fees, limit portions

At the Hurricane Seafood Restaurant in Pass-a-Grille, the acclaimed grouper sandwiches and hamburgers used to come with lettuce, tomato and fries.

The sandwiches still cost the same, but if you'd like fries with them, it will cost 50 cents more. Lettuce, tomato and onion each go for 10 cents extra.

Want an extra sauce or more sour cream with your order at Red Mesa in St. Petersburg? That used to be free. Now you'll have to fork over another dollar.

Like airlines that are charging for checked luggage and as much as $2 for a soda that used to be free, restaurants are coping with rising costs. Rather than raise entree prices, restaurants are limiting portions, charging for condiments or using less expensive ingredients.

The Flame Stone American Grill in Oldsmar isn't charging extra, but the portions of vegetables and starches are more controlled. The restaurant used to put a bread basket out for lunch and lemon in your water. Now if you want lemon or bread, you have to ask for it.

The Lobster Pot in Redington Shores has gone to a "less expensive" menu option this summer that tops out at $23. "Our hope is instead of them coming in and only having an appetizer they will have a full meal," office manager Debbie Feimster said.

The Lucky Dill Deli in Tampa is offering a burrito bar that provides a burrito for $2.50 to $3 less than the regular sandwich items.

Such changes likely will last through the year, said Maureen Ryan, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association.

Wholesale food prices are up 7.9 percent for the year ending in May. And restaurants are getting hit with fuel and delivery charges. If things don't turn around, more restaurants will look at extra charges and even raising menu prices.

The upscale Mise En Place in Tampa soon will offer a special two-course lunch menu for $16 to motivate customers to keep dining out. There's a three- course summer tasting menu for $35 that Maryann Ferenc, the restaurant's chief executive officer, said has been popular with diners looking for a high-end meal at value prices.

At the Hurricane, the owners began assessing their finances in February and found something stereotypical of Americans: waste.

"We noticed there was a lot of lettuce and tomato going into the trash," said Rick Falkenstein, whose family owns the restaurant. Now, "if they want lettuce, tomato, onions, it's 10 cents."

A few customers decided to leave because of the increase, but most have accepted the charges, Falkenstein said.

Customers Spencer and Elizabeth Hipp of Largo said the charges are reasonable. "With the price of gas, there has to be an additional charge along the line," said Spencer Hipp, who works as a food service director. He said he appreciates being given the option to choose whether to have the condiments.

Robert Roth, 49, of Duesseldorf, Germany, finishing a burger and fries at the Hurricane, said he won't argue with the extra fee for a tomato — as long as it's a high-quality tomato. "If we are charged for extras, we want to have extra quality," he said. "The quality is the main point."

It's what Mark Vitner, a Wachovia economist, calls a la carte pricing and a way to focus on the true desire of the consumer.

"As an economist, I think a la carte pricing makes a lot of sense," Vitner said. "You might as well key in to your customers."

The tactic is not without risk.

"My sense is that people don't like to be nickeled and dimed," said Scott Brown, chief economist at Raymond James Financial in St. Petersburg. "You invite trouble."

Brown said the restaurants "are facing higher costs. The question is, can they pass those higher costs on?"

PoFolks in St. Petersburg experimented with charging 25 cents for a glass of water with lemon. The owner thought better of it and went back to letting customers have the water for free.

Nick Pappas, owner of the 8-month-old Flame Stone American Grill, decided to control portions of starches and vegetables and restrict lemons with water to customers who request them. He said he's trying to keep more of the burden on the restaurant than the customer.

"Our slogan is, 'Take it on the chin short term rather than lose a customer long term,' " Pappas said.

Still, the economy is taking its toll. "Business is definitely a little bit off," Pappas said. "It's tough out there, no doubt about it."

Times restaurant critic Laura Reiley contributed to this report. Ivan Penn can be reached at (727) 892-2332.

Feeling the bite, restaurants add small fees, limit portions 07/01/08 [Last modified: Friday, July 4, 2008 1:11pm]
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