For the past 18 months, industry analysts have been predicting a national restaurant recession, something that historically presages worse economic news. Restaurants, they say, are the economy's canaries in the coal mine.
Recently, Tampa Bay canaries — the fanciest ones, anyway — have started looking a little peaked, and some have started shape-shifting into something more like pigeons. Restaurants perceived as "special occasion," "white tablecloth," or "fancy" are losing market share to casual restaurants.
After a temporary closure, highly regarded Pearl in the Grove in Dade City announced in October it would close for good. And six-time James Beard nominee Greg Baker of The Refinery and Fodder & Shine has re-envisioned his flagship restaurant entirely: The Refinery is now served by an affordable burger menu.
Z Grille in St. Petersburg, another Beard nominee, has shifted its menu to more affordable fare, owner Zack Gross drawing on crowd favorites from his much more casual and defunct Zurritos. And while maintaining her upscale Tampa eatery Restaurant BT, B.T. Nguyen has debuted the grab-and-go BT to Go and equally casual Bistro BT.
"When we started seven years ago, we were the only game in town," Baker said. "Now it's been done: the gastropub that uses local ingredients. What are we going to do to differentiate ourselves? We spent the summer looking at trends and everything is moving toward lower cost."
He's not wrong. According to Warren Solocheck, president of food service for the industry analyst NPD Group, there is a dramatic lessening of demand for full-service restaurants.
"The reason for that is driven by them becoming a little too pricey," he said. "People can't afford to go as often because of the price points involved. We're seeing more upscale restaurants closing, especially independents."
In places like the Tampa Bay area, he said, there may be too much competition. So the whole pie is shrinking, and we've cut it into too many slices.
Gross, who said his business has dropped 30 percent this year, ticks off a long list of suspected factors: The local restaurant landscape is increasingly glutted; in an election year, people are more financially conservative and don't eat out as much; he felt like tourism was slow this summer; the cost of groceries is currently low compared to restaurant food prices, so folks are bringing lunch from home. Add to all of this new regulations, including mandatory health care for employees, as well as rising staffing costs, and Gross and others feel the squeeze.
Labor costs are a major catalyst for The Refinery's new vision. Greg Baker and his wife/partner Michelle hope lower prices will mean increased volume that will offset high food costs and get labor costs in line.
And it takes fewer people to make a burger than local roasted candy cane beets, three ways.
"I'll still use local foods as much as I can," he said. "The difference is in the cost of the labor going into the menu. It's not as labor intensive and the cost of labor keeps going up."
He lamented that the no-tipping model in many New York restaurants failed. He says his social media news feed is filled with "Fight for $15" minimum wage support, but that it's hard to get customers to pick up the real cost of higher wages. It turns out, diners are willing to pay a 20 percent tip, but not 20 percent more for their menu items.
It's all a strong impetus for taking things in a more casual or affordable direction. But the bigger picture is that the zeitgeist has shifted.
"When you see some of the top chefs in the world switching to burgers and shakes, you know something is going on," said Suzanne Perry, co-owner of Datz, Dough, Roux and the soon-to-open Dr. BBQ's. "Food is fashion, and right now the country is in the mood for jeans-and-a-T-shirt type food."
When Datz debuted, there were no burgers on the menu. Now, Perry said, they are the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 sellers.
"Hamburgers are the absolute most popular food at restaurants," confirmed Solocheck. "The reason is, if you're going to make burgers at home you have to have the protein, the bun and all the condiments. And, by the way, when I get a burger, I get fries. No one likes to make fries at home."
All true. But burgers also signal something about a restaurant. A chef can be ambitious and pedigreed, but a robust burger lineup says "don't worry, this isn't a splurge restaurant."
"People would say, 'an expensive restaurant like yours,' " Baker explained. "And I'd say, 'No, we're not. We're the same price point as TGI Fridays.' It's about perception."
Chris Ponte's flagship restaurant is the upscale Cafe Ponte in Clearwater. It, he said, is a business-friendly, white-tablecloth atmosphere that "lives off of the corporate dollar." Earlier this year, he and partners debuted On Swann in Tampa's Hyde Park Village, which has done volume and business far beyond their expectations.
"I think there is going to be a downturn, but the people who are going to stand out have to provide value in your market," Ponte said. "On Swann is a social environment where people share. It has a younger staff and attracts millennials."
Millennials are the magical unicorns that every restaurateur seeks, but it isn't as simple as lowering prices. Ferrell Alvarez, co-owner of Tampa's Rooster & the Till, predicted an increase in restaurant closures, often because owners aren't effective in controlling costs.
"People get into the industry because it seems lucrative and cool," he said. "But there's this trend (where) people are doing approachable, affordable food but having a multimillion-dollar build-out. You have to sell a lot of dumplings to make that money back."
This past week, a New York Post article described at length the challenges facing New York restaurants: higher wages, higher rents and food costs, fierce competition. Nonetheless, New York remains one of the country's most important food cities.
If many Tampa Bay restaurateurs, including our award contenders, are setting their sights on less ambitious fare, might this impact the area's status as a dining destination? Might this diminish our chances to nab national culinary awards?
Baker pointed to Beard-winning chefs like Nashville's Tandy Wilson, whose City House menu is largely pizza.
"In our case, it's burgers," he said. "We're not necessarily lowering the quality of anything. I still have 12 items that aren't burgers, so there's still room for creativity. This change says something about how we're eating. People claim they want healthier, but they really want fat, rich and decadent."
Gross' assessment is more stark.
"Restaurants are getting hammered and everyone is trying to figure out our next move. Everyone wants value. They want to see things that are under $10. I dropped a lot of my prices to $9.99. It makes you feel good."
That said, folks will still pony up big bucks in one area: booze. Even as diners demand lower-priced dishes, they will splurge on a mojito.
The menu may be burgers, said Baker, "but that pint of craft beer is still going to be $5."
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.