Retirees key to Hernando restaurants' survival

We've seen the terrifying statistics, the ones that make it seem as if we're heading from economic decline to collapse: 12.4 percent unemployment; 3,256 foreclosures last year; permitting for new homes falling almost to zero.

Which is why I've puzzled for months over the lunchtime scene at one of my regular stops, the Pizza Villa and Restaurant in the Coastal Landing plaza off State Road 50.

I see customers. Lots of them. Sometimes enough that I have to wait to be seated.

Sure the perfect, crisp-going-on-crunchy crust of those New York-style pies has something to do with it. But there have to be other factors at work, too.

Given the numbers — and that eating out is one of the easiest ways to cut spending — I've been expecting just about every restaurant in the county to tank. Some of them have, of course, and by searching for good economic news I don't mean to dismiss the suffering of these establishments' owners and employees.

Still, it seems that a lot of restaurants are nearly as full as ever. Not just Pizza Villa, but several others all over the county, both independents and chains. Witness, for example, the long lines and overflowing parking lot at the new Texas Roadhouse.

It's almost at though there's an undetected economic current running against the downward flow, or at least some force sturdy enough to stand up to it.

And, with the help of county demographics planner David Miles, I think I may have found it. Hernando, as we've always known, has lots of retirees, but I didn't realize how many until Miles showed me figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.

A stunning 46.7 percent of households in Hernando — or about 31,000 — received Social Security payments in 2007, according to bureau. That is 20 percent above the statewide figure, 14 percent higher than the Tampa Bay area as a whole. And, in a 12-county swath running from Marion to Sarasota, Hernando's percentage ranks third behind only Citrus and Lake counties.

Hernando is first, meanwhile, in the percentage of households receiving other forms of retirement income — 32.5 percent. On average, this came to an estimated $19,404 per household; for Social Security, the amount is $15,646.

Considering the statistics on retirement income were collected between 2005 and 2007 — and that this income includes revenue from stock market accounts — it has almost certainly dropped.

Still, it's enough income to buy quite a few plates of spaghetti.

When I asked Pizza Villa manager Rob Cullen to tell me how much business had declined since the beginning of the recession, he reminded me that the restaurant recently moved to a new, larger location.

"Actually, I'd say we're up,'' said Cullen, who estimated 60 percent of his customers are retirees. Often, he said, they order specials, which at lunch can run less than $5.

So some of the stereotypes about penny-pinching retirees may be true. We've had a lot of fun with this, over the years. We've called ice water with a slice of lemon the Spring Hill cocktail. We've disparaged elderly customers as the fixed-income crowd.

But you know what? When so many other incomes are falling or disappearing altogether, fixed is not a bad thing to be.

Retirees key to Hernando restaurants' survival 03/12/09 [Last modified: Thursday, March 12, 2009 8:07pm]

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