The dip in the economy has restaurant owners and chefs scrambling for new ways to bring in customers. As WFPL’s Stephanie Sanders reports, those tweaks range from attempts to make dining more comfortable to the ingredients on your plate.
For years, Le Relais has been ranked among Louisville’s top fine dining spots– one with high-end pricing and specialty plates. But in December, owner Anthony Dike changed the name to Bistro Le Relais and adjusted the menu accordingly.
“The food is prepared a little bit differently, and we will not use very expensive ingredients, that’s the main thing,” says Dike.
The change is one he’d been considering for several months, but the national recession and the subsequent slide in business forced his decision to rewrite the menu and slash prices.
Dike says the overhaul has improved the situation a bit. The restaurant is offering less expensive cuts of meat, simpler recipes and daily specials to build up a weekday customer base. For example, Wednesday is duck confit night.
“Usually a duck confit on the menu might have been, in the old days, 26-27 dollars very easily,” says Dike, “and now it’s nineteen.”
Menu and price changes are the first play in the book for restaurant operators in a tough economy, according to researcher Hudson Riehle with the National Restaurant Association.
“Menu development, as well as menu pricing is critical in this period where consumers cash on hand is severely tight,” says Riehle.
After menu changes come facility alterations, such as additional bar or lounge space.
But this is where it can get tricky for restaurateurs: Riehle says while business is getting tough at many high-end restaurants like Le Relais, it’s typically booming at more casual – and less-expensive – eateries.
“The tactics those two operators would take to engage in this current economic environment, in many cases, can be dramatically opposite,” Riehle says.
Case in point: Louisville chef and restaurateur Dean Corbett. He’s the chef/owner of Jack’s Lounge, where you can get ‘ultimate nachos’ for 7.75; Equus, where Chilean sea bass costs 19-dollars; and Corbett’s, where the prime filet is 49-dollars.
When the economy began its tumble last year, Corbett says all three took a hit.
“We probably saw a 40-percent reduction immediately,” he says, “it’s like the earth stood still there for a few weeks.”
He made immediate menu changes at Equus and Corbett’s, and business started trickling back in… but not enough.
“I had one area of the business that was doing great, Jack’s, Equus was not doing so great, and Corbett’s was not doing so great.”
So he decided to change the ambience at Equus – stripped the tablecloths and cut prices by 50%. And he’s seen a 500% increase in business there in the last two months.
At Corbett’s they’ve extended their lounge area, revamped their lounge menu and offered price reductions on Sundays. Dean Corbett is still waiting to see if that brings in more customers.
The one place he hasn’t made changes?
“Not Jack’s. Jack’s is an enigma. Jack’s doesn’t go down. Jack’s just continues to roll,” says Corbett. “And I think part of that is the fact that in good times or bad, people enjoy a cocktail.”
They also enjoy food like mac-and-cheese and mashed potatoes. At Uptown Café in the Highlands, they’re a little less discreet about their menu changes… offering a daily list of specials called the “Recession Relief Menu”.
Chef Matt Weber says they’re offering plates with fewer and less expensive ingredients, but also comfort food.
“People like their mother’s meatloaf and mashed potatoes, right?” says Weber. “On our first one we had some fried chicken livers with mashed potatoes and red-eyed gravy, it was a huge success. It was hard to keep that in stock.”
Weber says these days most people are just looking for comfort…whether that comes in the form of a drink, a cushy bar stool… or the food itself.