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Can Tampa Bay's best restaurants survive a brutal summer?

Tampa Bay's restaurant landscape could see some high-profile closures or at least sweeping concept changes in the next four months thanks to the stumbling economy and fewer people eating out.

Restaurant traffic is down here and nationally more steeply in the past three months than at any point in the past 28 years. To cope with the downturn, Tampa Bay area restaurateurs are tightening their belts — shrinking staffs, doing the cooking or administrative duties themselves, monitoring food costs more closely, offering deals to keep customers coming in the doors — in order to survive. But most anticipate not everyone will.

"It's going to be a blood bath," says John Lewis, chef/owner of La Maison Gourmet in Dunedin. "Typically in our business, in this area, the really slow months are August into October. It's been my experience that for restaurants that are teetering, that's when they finally pull the plug. The current situation exacerbates an already bad time for restaurants here."

Declining to name names, Lewis says there are two restaurants in the Dunedin area that will likely close their doors any day.

High-end restaurants, even great ones, are feeling more than their share of the pain. According to an NPD market research firm study released Monday, mid-scale restaurant traffic declined 6 percent in the past three months relative to last year. That percentage was a mere 2 percent for quick service and fast food, but a staggering 14 percent for fine dining.

B.T. Nguyen, the dynamic chef/owner of Restaurant BT in Tampa's Old Hyde Park Village, is fighting a perfect storm. Besides the lousy economy, Restaurant BT is saddled with an expensive lease in Old Hyde Park Village, a shopping/dining complex that currently looks like a ghost town.

"In boom times people forget that things won't go on that way forever. Things change continuously. I have big hopes that we'll get out of this, but it has been a shock and it's scary. Yes, I'm asking myself if I'm going to be able to hold on," Nguyen says.

Controlling variables

Nguyen has slashed staff, going from 54 to 24 employees in the past year in an effort to combat a revenue drop that may be inching toward half compared to a couple of years ago. Chris Ponte, chef/owner of Cafe Ponte in Clearwater, has taken the opportunity to renegotiate his rent with his landlord. Emmanuel Roux, owner of St. Petersburg's The Garden, has eliminated the executive chef, donning chef whites himself, and refocused the menu on more economical dishes.

"They key thing is to try to control the overhead. We've always been very conservative, but now we see a lot of customers just having appetizers. Waiters are going home with less money," he says.

Both Ponte and Lewis have decreased their food costs (down to 28 percent for Ponte, as low as 20 percent for Lewis) through wiser purchasing, better waste management and savvier menu planning.

"This has made me take a look at my business to the penny," explains Ponte. "God willing, we're going to be a better-run restaurant because of this."

Clean slate

This has been a time of reckoning for Sally Herb and Michael Peel. They closed 7-year-old Crazy Conch in Tierra Verde in April and opened WineBurgers in the same spot in May.

"We'd been thinking about it for 18 months," Herb says. "I think white-tablecloth restaurants noticed a change in the economy sooner. People would have their wine at home, then split entrees once they got here — not that there's anything wrong with that, but I can't make a living that way. So we did a boatload of research, looking at what was going on in cities like New York and Chicago."

They wanted to see what was working elsewhere. What was working was comfort food. Voila, a hamburger joint, nothing more than $9.

Silver lining

Ponte has used this downturn to his advantage. Teaming with the owners of the Melting Pot, he launches Peel in Tampa in October, a new fast-casual pizza-and-panini concept they hope becomes a chain.

"This is the best time to negotiate lease options. Landlords are willing to put money in because they need leasees. . . . In the long run we're going to have better and longer leases."

And certainly there's an upside for consumers. Each of the restaurateurs interviewed for this story pointed to special deals instituted to keep customers coming back. For beleaguered restaurants and their followers, these deals may be the saving grace.

"People will come out for a reason," Lewis says. "The trick is to incentivize the customer."

For some diners, this might just be knowing a favorite restaurant is one bad week away from closing for good.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@sptimes.com .

By the numbers

n 2.6% Amount all restaurant traffic declined in the three months ending May 31 compared to a year ago, the steepest decline in 28 years

n 2% Decline for quick service restaurants and fast food

n 4% Casual dining decline

n 6%Mid-scale dining decline

n 14%Fine dining decline

n 1% Amount that the total number of restaurants in the U.S. is down from 2008, or about 4,000 fewer restaurants

Source: NPD Group

Wooing diners

In dire times, here are some deals to keep customers coming:

. Cafe Ponte: Mix any appetizer, entree and dessert for $33 for a three-course meal between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m.

. La Maison
Gourmet: Monday nights are now "Cheap Good Eats" with $1 tacos. Lewis had 85 customers the first week of this promotion.

. Restaurant BT: A new bar menu was instituted in May, with 12 French-Vietnamese dishes priced $2 each.

. WineBurgers: On a wine list organized by price, there are four big-name wines offered at $5 a glass, $20 a bottle.

Can Tampa Bay's best restaurants survive a brutal summer? 07/22/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 31, 2009 6:05pm]

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