Restaurants are a tough business. There are workers to manage, guests to please, inventory with a short shelf life to move. Add a harsh financial climate to the mix and you have a perfect recipe for stress. Xpress recently spoke to several area restaurateurs to find out how they're keeping their businesses afloat in these trying times.
Like most local business owners, chef Brian Canipelli of Cucina 24 has had a hard winter, what with weekend sucker punches of snow and sleet. In response, he's scaled back the menu at the downtown Asheville eatery and added more "peasant fare" — rustic, slow-cooked items. Canipelli says he's always gravitated toward that style anyway, but the fact that braises make edible art out of cheaper, tougher cuts of meat doesn't hurt his bottom line either. Consumers, though, are gravitating more and more toward this type of food, and savvy business owners are taking note.
Another way Canipelli copes with a weak economy is by maintaining what amounts to a skeleton crew, even though his cooking style can be quite labor-intensive. In order to avoid sacrificing quality, Canipelli says he often pulls grueling, 80-plus-hour workweeks. He maintains that he hasn't killed anyone yet, "but there's a couple people on my list," he says, chuckling.
Sales of wine by the glass are up, while bottle sales are down, Canipelli reports. And many folks, he notes, are choosing to forgo the traditional coursed dinner in favor of a salad as the main course, for example, or a slew of appetizers for communal grazing.
Canipelli is fortunate in that his menu works well for these eating habits. Cucina 24 offers an array of antipasti — think sophisticated Italian tapas. "I've been seeing a trend of family style as a result of the economy. I'm sort of integrating that idea, which I like, into the antipasti — it's a way to share, try a bunch of different stuff. I like eating that way."
The menu also reflects the chef's desire to offer a comfortable but sophisticated dining experience that doesn't break the bank. "You always have your choice of coming in here and getting a bowl of pasta or a pizza and a beer. Since I opened a restaurant right when the economy started going south, it was tailored like that from when we started. I never wanted it to be a special-occasion place to begin with," he reveals, adding, "Of course you can come in here to celebrate and blow it up with the $25 venison special."
And though some maintain that the economy is recovering, Canipelli says profit margins remain tight. "This is not a business where I'm getting rich — I haven't paid myself in months. I do it because it's what I love. I'm not going to buy crap food to feed people just to make more money. We're buying real ingredients and making everything ourselves. If people get it, great, and most people do — and that makes it worthwhile."
One bite at a time
Reza Setayesh is the chef and owner of Rezaz in Biltmore Village. Like Canipelli, Setayesh first noticed the economic downturn in wine sales. At the same time, it became apparent that customers were looking for more opportunities to sample a variety of dishes without getting stuffed — or emptying their wallets.
"So I decided I had to make some changes," says Setayesh. "I thought, what a great opportunity to not only simplify the menu, but also to offer the guests an option to have a smaller portion of something that they would like to have that they would not normally order because they don't feel like eating that much."
Rezaz now offers small-portion versions of many menu items, and the appetizer-to-entree structure has essentially dissolved. Meanwhile, Setayesh says he intends to begin offering even smaller plates. "Maybe like two or three bites, and that's it," he explains. "It's just another way that we can offer a tasting to guests and let them be hungry to come back and try something else. This is what we are trying to achieve."
The restaurant, says Setayesh, has had to cut staff hours, especially in the leaner winter months. "We've had to reduce the menu to the extent that it's not bare-bones, but to where it satisfies most palates and yet also satisfies the business, as in making sure that it is sustainable." Rezaz will expand the menu again once more tourist traffic arrives, but for now the restaurant is working the streamlined concept well.
The best way for a restaurant to survive an economic crisis, says Setayesh, is to provide an environment where guests can enjoy a welcome respite from their worries — after all, people always need to eat. "In tough times, people want to be able to come in here and forget about everything else," he observes. "This is a release; this is an escape: to spend some time with us and forget about it all."
Traci and Treavis Taylor, co-owners of Fig Bistro in Biltmore Village, have also felt the pinch. They've modified their menu and restaurant in small ways, but not dramatically, believing that rolling with the punches is important but that constantly changing a concept can be disastrous.
"The recession has made it obvious to us that what we really want to focus on is offering a way for people to be able to continue to eat out," Traci explains. "If there's a demographic that wants to have a lesser-priced item, we want to be able to offer that to them."
Accordingly, Fig now offers affordable dishes such as meat loaf, mac and cheese, quiche and pot pie alongside the duck breast and veal sweetbreads. "Our quality hasn't been compromised at all," she notes. "We haven't changed; we've just added more options. People have more choices in different price ranges. We're trying to give more value for the money — make it more accessible."
The Taylors are also offering promotions during off times, such as half-price bottles of wine on Wednesdays and less expensive small plates in the hours between lunch and dinner.
In addition, they've been leveraging social media such as Facebook and Twitter to reach out to a demographic that, in the past, might have regarded Fig as a pricey haunt for the Biltmore Forest crowd. "I'd like to squelch that perception," says Traci.
Treavis, meanwhile, thinks Fig may have found a recession-friendly formula with its menu. "People are looking for comfort, something familiar, and that's what we're providing." he observes.
"And we're taking mac and cheese, meat loaf and quiche to a whole other level," finishes Traci.
"It's comfort food with attitude," Treavis, says, laughing.
At Fig, stresses Traci, "You can either get a five-star meal or comfortable bistro fare. It has appeal to everyone, and you don't have to break the bank to come here."
"I can't take credit for this phrase, but I like it," says Treavis. "There's no recession on eating. When it comes to restaurants, there's winners and losers. People are still going to eat out, but they're looking for options."
Mackensy Lunsford can be reached at email@example.com.