© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Restaurants cook up appetizing solutions for surviving sour economy

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 23, 2010 - June VeDova, 83, called "heads" and won her lunch at Eckert's Country Restaurant on a blustery March afternoon, while her companion Agnellus "Zip" Zipfel, 84, called "tails" and had to pay up.

Or, wash the dishes, teased server Tabitha Kramer.

VeDova and Zipfel are regulars at the Belleville orchard on "Coin Toss Tuesdays," when a lucky flip of a coin means that there really is such a thing as a free lunch -- or dinner. On Tuesdays only, a coin toss determines who pays and who eats for free at the restaurant, best known for its "lip-smacking, finger-licking, belly-patting" fried chicken, served family style.

So, what are the odds?

"Fifty-fifty,'' replied a smiling Zipfel, who seemed to take his loss in stride.

"It's fun flipping,'' added VeDova.

Kramer said that some regulars come on Tuesdays just to take advantage of the marketing promotion, while she's had other customers decline the coin toss for a safer bet: using a newspaper coupon to reduce their entire bill by 20 percent.

"They didn't want to chance it,'' Kramer said.

Now celebrating the 100th year of their family business, the Eckerts know a thing or two about bringing in customers during a recession. From Bunco nights and "Coin Toss Tuesdays" to "buy-one, get-one free'' coupons, the restaurant and adjoining country store offer a variety of special deals, said Jill Tantillo, vice president of marketing and food services.

"We've taken the approach of discounting and coupons, and it has increased our sales enough that I have not lost money. And we really haven't raised prices for two years. You really can't raise your prices,'' Tantillo said.

Eating out is a luxury that people have cut back on, she said.

"Even people who haven't been affected by the recession feel like they ought to save more or shouldn't go out to eat as much. What we try to promote is that we're about family. People are also looking for that in tough times: It's a message that withstands time,'' Tantillo said.

Despite the recession, a new country store is under construction that will allow the restaurant nearly to double current seating capacity of 180. It's all about adapting to changing times -- something the family has done since Alvin O. Eckert opened a roadside stand in 1910 to sell fruits from the orchard, explained Tantillo, 41, one of the sixth- and seventh-generation Eckerts who run the pick-your-own orchard and related enterprises.

"They kept changing and adding things over time. They knew what the demands were -- what people wanted and needed -- and that changes. That's how we've been able to keep growing,'' she said.

The restaurant started the coin-toss promotion in winter 2009 to entice customers during the orchard's off-season.

"Everybody gets to toss if you're paying separate. It's a lot of fun and it creates excitement in the restaurant. You'll hear tables cheering when they toss. The servers have a good time with it, too,'' Tantillo said.

Though she doesn't keep track of the "wins,'' Tantillo agreed with Zipfel's assessment of the odds.

"Some days it seems like everybody wins,'' Tantillo said. "We probably give away $300 to $500 in food on a given day. It's become a bigger day for us now. Tuesday was not a very busy day, but we know we have to have a little more staff on; nighttime is a little busier.''

While some servers toss the coins, diners can do their own flipping if they choose.

"It's not a loaded coin,'' Tantillo said, laughing. "They can bring their own.''

Eat here. Please.

In this third spring of the great recession, creative restaurateurs are using their noodles to keep their dining rooms busy. While some have found success with coupons and discounts, others won't go down that road. The key, all agree, is finding the right strategy for individual restaurants that are as varied as their menus.

At the Highway 61 Roadhouse and Kitchen in Webster Groves, for example, a new $9.99 "Wallet Watchers" menu of Cajun/Creole "comfort food" entices diners from 3-6 p.m. on weekdays. The owner of the upscale Oceano Bistro in Clayton doesn't believe in discounting but has introduced an "Advantage Membership" program to reward his customers.

There's even an economy-inspired blog -- www.stlmealdeals.com -- dedicated to the news of "discounts, deals and recession specials" in the local area. This just in: three courses for $35 at Chef Girard Craft's acclaimed Niche restaurant in Benton Park.

Local restaurateurs say they are not only dealing with a still-struggling economy but also a budget-eats mentality, driven by fast food and chain restaurant marketing. From the buck-a-burger war between McDonald's and Burger King to Pizza Hut's any-pie-for-$10 and Applebee's "2-for-$20" promotions, recession advertising has been chirping the same tune for months now: Eat here. Cheap. Cheap.

Shelly Fortel, president of the St. Louis chapter of the Missouri Restaurant Association, said the industry has been also been an easy target for financial advisers urging consumers to save money by eating at home.

"Right now, times are really, really difficult, and the industry has been hit very, very hard,'' said Fortel, whose father, Bob Fortel, founded the local Fortel Pizza Den chain nearly 30 years ago. "You turn on 'Oprah' and she has on [financial adviser] Suze Orman who says the first thing you have to do is stop eating out. And everybody listens to Oprah. And we all went, 'What? What are you doing to us?' ''

Weary of all the negative publicity, the National Restaurant Association sent a public thank you letter to President Barack Obama last May thanking him for dining out with his family.

When people stop patronizing restaurants, businesses suffer -- and so does hiring, Fortel points out. She said that Fortel's has trimmed its payroll through attrition: Staff hasn't been laid off, but workers who leave are not replaced.

"The biggest thing I'm hearing from my colleagues is that we're all trying to cut payroll, as things really start to get tight,'' she said.

Fortel said the recession has settled in now -- and restaurateurs are dealing with it.

"It's here and it's ugly,'' Fortel said. "My goal is to get through this year the best we can and hope that by the end of the year we start seeing a turnaround.

We see it getting a little bit better on the weekends, but to be honest, the weekdays are getting worse. People are like, 'Well, I guess we can go out on Friday night.' And if you go down Lindbergh Boulevard, the restaurants are packed on Friday night - look, there's no recession. For two hours on a Friday night they're packed. They used to be for packed for four hours.''

Business at the nine Fortel's locations have been affected differently, depending on unemployment in their local communities, said Fortel, who works at the Affton restaurant.

"I had a couple who came in every Friday night and brought their granddaughter with them,'' she said. "It was a regular occurrence; they would get here between 6:30 and 7:30 and be here about two hours. Their granddaughter played video games; we always had a table waiting for them. He lost his job, and we haven't seen them in a year.''

No shirt. No shoes. No discounts.

Fortel refuses to jump into the current pizza pricing fray. While the national chains blanket the airwaves -- and mailboxes -- with discount offers, Fortel will not sell her pizzas at discount rates. Instead, she is standing behind the quality promised by her family's "mom and pop" business: Pizzas are loaded with fresh toppings. Dough is made daily in the stores.

"We don't coupon. It's something my father was adamant about,'' she said. "My personal opinion is that once you start doing that, then that's the only way you're going to get them back in the door. With the amount of food I put on a pizza, I can't. I run pretty close margins with what I'm doing. I'm trying to put out a real quality product, and I can't give it out at a minimal price.''

Fortel said that her restaurants don't have the same purchasing power as the national chains.

"They're giving their food away, and they're able to do that because they have 5,000 Pizza Huts they're buying toppings for. I have nine. I don't get that kind of break,'' she said. "In some respects, I don't consider them my competition. But in the big scheme of things, we're all pizza restaurants. If somebody's just looking for pizza, and they don't care what they're eating, they're not coming to Fortel's.''

Instead of discounting, Fortel said she has continued to focus on advertising, including radio spots.

"My father opened this place when I was 7 years old. Now, here I am at 37 years old and I'm like, 'Wow this really stinks.' You try to be creative and you try to do some new things to get people in the door, but you have to draw the line. How can you get people in the door without giving your restaurant away? We know it's going to get better, but we don't know when. We're treading water, waiting for it to turn around.''

At Amer Abouwardah's Oceano Bistro in Clayton, which emphasizes fresh fish and seafood dishes, patrons can now buy an annual membership card for $20 that includes special perks: a "complimentary" lunch after buying six lunches, an extended happy hour on Tuesdays, a wholesale wine night and 20 percent off Sunday brunch.

The membership is not a discount card but a way of rewarding patrons, Abouwardah said.

"I don't believe in discounting yourself,'' he said. "When sales go bad, some restaurants tend to go to discounting -- buy-one, get-one free. That's when the restaurant goes in the wrong direction. I firmly believe if a restaurant fails, they should increase their staff members and they should evaluate the quality of their food and service. To discount yourself is not going to rebound your sales, it's just giving your regular customers a belief that you're having some sort of trouble with quality or service, or whatever, so you give a discount in price.''

Oceano's sales have increased in 2010, Abouwardah said, which he attributes to a combination of factors. After sales dropped by 10 percent in 2008, the restaurant made adjustments in its marketing strategy and saw sales rebound in 2009.

One key has been tracking and sharing information daily with staff -- and using past experience to think ahead, he said.

"Let's say September last year was bad, you have to plan for it now. You can't wait until August and say, 'What are we going to do next month?' It's too late,'' he said.

Oceano's special dinner series featuring top guest chefs from other local restaurants has had a huge impact on his restaurant's profile, he said. The five-course dinners cost $65 per person and benefit specified charities. Next up: Marc Curran, executive chef of Araka in Clayton on April 22 to benefit Healing the Children.

"I'm willing to try anything as long as I don't make my customers feel that I am discounting myself,'' Abouwardah said. "They come to the restaurant with the impression that this is a high-class restaurant with the best quality food and service -- and you've got to maintain that image. The minute you start forcing coupons and discount cards, that image has to drop.''

Deal or no deal

Bill Kunz, who owns the Highway 61 Roadhouse and Kitchen in Webster Groves, said he thought carefully before launching the restaurant's new "Wallet Watchers" menu that features hearty fixed-price afternoon specials. Diners can choose from 10 customer favorites, including pulled pork, catfish and the restaurant's signature barbecue spaghetti, plus three sides that include selections from the dessert menu.

"It started as 'early bird specials,' but that has a connotation of old people and senior citizens, and we wanted to have a broader appeal,'' Kunz said.

He believes that restaurant owners must walk a careful line between offering affordable options and the kind of deep discounts that are being offered by the nation's pizza giants.

"Brand loyalty in the pizza industry right now is, 'Who do I have a coupon with?' And they don't sell a full-price pizza to anyone anymore,'' Kunz said. "We have to be really careful not to enter into that same realm because when and if we ever get out of this economic crunch, we don't want to have created the habits that the pizza industry has: 'I've got to have a coupon to have a pizza.' ''

Kunz offers a steak special on Monday nights and 61-cent barbecue ribs and smoked chicken wings on Tuesday night, now one of the restaurant's busiest nights of the week.

"The whole problem with this situation is how to give the guest a deal on a meal but not to down-sell your product,'' Kunz said. "We looked at taking what we had and trying to make it more affordable.''

Kunz agrees with other local restaurateurs who say they've seen business pick up recently.

"I think it's better, but I don't think we've recovered because there's not any consistency,'' he said. "About three weeks ago, I had my first weekend where Friday, Saturday, Sunday were all good for the first time in a year and a half. But then last week, we fell right on our face. You have this great weekend so you gear up, put a little more staff on, and then boom.''

His restaurant, just 3 years old, opened just before the economic downturn, and he's seen the change in his customers.

"Guests who would come in and have a meal and one or two or three cocktails, are now having one or no cocktails. The bar end of the business has suffered big time, which is also one of the most profitable aspects of the business,'' Kunz said. "In talking to my friends in the nightclub business, they're noticing their clientele is getting together at someone's house and having a couple of cocktails and then going to the bars much later.''

Despite the overall gloom, Kunz believes that some restaurants might be benefiting from consumer wariness.

"I think everyone's a little more cautious about making the big purchases -- they're not buying the car, not moving up on their house, and at the end of the month they're noticing they have a little money and feel the need to reward themselves,'' he said. "Instead of eating out and going to a movie, people may just be eating out and hanging out and talking. They may be doing it less, but it's taken on a new part of their life. It is as much a social activity as the eating.''

But while dining out might be that reward, customers are still looking for a deal, he said.

"If you went and tried to make a meal for $9.99, for what we give you -- it's a dollar or two more than it would cost you, plus your time and cleanup, it's worth it,'' he said. "We're selling hospitality, the experience. I'm here a lot; people want to see me; they want me to visit their tables.''

Kunz said that when economic recovery does come, he believes that people will remain careful about spending and the restaurant business will have seen a thinning of the herd.

"The best operators are going to be left when it's over,'' he said.

In the meantime, Kunz said he has no trouble finding good help these days. A help wanted listing on craigslist that might have brought one or two applications in the past, now brings 20 applications. And a recent search for an assistant manager brought applications from over-qualified restaurant general managers and former food and beverage directors.

"You're really hesitant to hire somebody like that because you're not going to pay them near what they're used to making,'' Kunz said. "You always have in the back of your mind that I'm going to hire them, and they're using this as a filler while they're out looking for something else. But they need a job. It's kind of a Catch-22 situation."

Restaurants and economy

* With 12.7 million workers, the restaurant industry is the nation's largest private-sector employer.

* The overall impact of the restaurant industry on the U.S. economy is $1.4 trillion, according to the National RestaurantAssociation.

* In 2009, the industry lost jobs, for only the second time in the last 50 years.

* The restaurant industry is forecasting a gradual economic improvement at end of 2010. Sales are projected to beflat, but that will be an improvement over the 2.9 percent negativesales growth experienced in 2009.

* The Missouri Restaurant Association estimatesthat every $1 spent in Missouri restaurants generates an additional$1.27 in sales for other industries in the state.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.