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Restaurants adjust to leaner times

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A year ago, chef Michael Gettier was importing fish fro France, paying $200 a pound for Perigord truffles and serving a clientele that didn't dare arrive without a reservation.

Now he won't serve a veal chop because it's too pricey. He's cooking chicken -- something he hasn't done in a restaurant for years. And when customers drop by at closing, as they did last week, he's likely to set the table himself and race to the kitchen to rustle up some soup or a salad.

"People used to talk about where they could go to spend the biggest bucks and impress their cohorts the most. Now they're looking for just the opposite. They want less song and dance and a better meal," says Mr. Gettier, the former executive chef of Mount Vernon's now-defunct Conservatory who recently opened M. Gettier Restaurant in Fells Point.

It's a brave new restaurant world. Baltimore's old guard is dwindling. The new money-makers are often family-friendly chains, casual cafes or retro diners. And profit-hungry restaurateurs are scrambling to compete by improving service, slashing prices and even lowering standards.

Much is working against them. Corporate cutbacks have curtailed expense-account dining. Alcohol consumption is down. And the trend is toward lighter, more healthful and less expensive eating.

Menu prices across the country rose just two percent last year, the smallest increase since 1964, says Wendy Webster, spokeswoman of the National Restaurant Association in Washington.

"One thing the economy has done is to make careful consumers out of diners," she says. "They're bargain hunters now. The market's so competitive that if a restaurant across the road is offering a special value deal and you don't lower prices or offer coupons, you're going to lose your consumer."

In Baltimore, the times are even tougher.

This month, the trade magazine Restaurants & Institutions ranked Baltimore at the bottom of its list of the best cities in the South Atlantic region in which to open a restaurant. The No. 1 spot in the country, with a score of 173, was Ocala, Fla. Baltimore got just 64, 36 points below the average. (The scores were based on the number of restaurants in the area, sales per location and the median income of residents.)

The results came as no surprise to many area restaurateurs.

"It's a struggle to do business today," laments Hersh Pachino, owner of Hersh's Orchard Inn in Towson, where business is down 8 percent this year. "Our average check is $24 [per person]. That's the same as it's been for the last couple years."

'Crab-and-beer town'

Despite a cadre of creative, award-winning restaurants and hot new spots such as Mount Vernon's Citronelle, Baltimore still has a reputation as a crab-and-beer town. Diners here have long been considered trend-wary, cost-conscious and lovers of large portions.

"Baltimore is a backwater in terms of culinary trends," says Harold Marmulstein, executive chef of the Polo Grill. "There's not sophisticated dining clientele."

He was reminded of that after recently creating a new dish -- a marinated seafood salad of squid, octopus and rock shrimp. "We sold one order, and the person sent it back, saying it wasn't what they thought it would be," he says.

Timid taste buds aside, diners here do mirror those across the country. They want value, moderate prices and good service in a relaxed setting. And many also want a place they can take the kids.

More than half of all restaurants now make some accommodations for children -- whether it's by offering a different menu or complimentary toys, says Ms. Webster. A few pioneering restaurants in places such as Denver, Colo., and Chicago, Ill., are actually providing on-site child care or a separate children's dining room.

But baby boomers who have grown up in restaurants -- and who are now introducing their offspring to the dining experience -- are not easily impressed.

Customers more demanding

"Customers are demanding perfection," says Steve Rockwell, restaurant analyst with Alex. Brown & Sons Inc., an investment banking company.

"They know the difference between good service and bad service, a high-quality product and a low-quality product. . . . The most attractive segment of the market is the casual, full-service restaurant -- a Chili's kind of operation. It's not white tablecloth, and the average check can range from $5 to $20."

One person who realized early on that consumers want a sure thing is Bob Giaimo. After opening his first American Cafe in Georgetown, expanding to seven restaurants throughout the Baltimore-Washington area and then selling the chain in 1986, he shopped around for his next target.

Diners, Mr. Giaimo surmised, were the future. Three years later, he opened his first Silver Diner, with its neon signs and Formica counter tops and menu of meatloaf, mashed potatoes and gravy.

"For any business to be successful, it has to solve a problem. The problem that the Silver Diner speaks to is: Where do you go when you want something fast that tastes good at a reasonable price?" he says.

He now has four locations (all in Maryland) and expects annual sales of about $12 million, he says.

While Baltimore has lost some legends in recent years -- including the Pimlico, Danny's and most recently the Harvey House -- the restaurant scene is growing, particularly in the area of chains. Sfuzzi, Mick's and the Outback Steakhouse are just a few of the corporate successes to have opened here in the past year.

The reassuring news is that Americans are still dining out. According to the National Restaurant Association, people eat away from home nearly four times a week, a figure that covers everything from picking up a muffin in the company cafeteria to ** visiting a four-star restaurant for dinner.

To draw them in, restaurateurs are sharpening their business skills, whether it's by giving the wait staff beepers to improve service -- which Henry & Jeff's in Mount Vernon has done -- or by offering coupons, a marketing tool tried by Carrol's Creek in Annapolis.

To compete, Hersh Pachino has had to reduce his staff, increase his hours and add light fare to his dinner menu. On a Saturday night, no one raises an eyebrow when guests eat hot turkey sandwiches with gravy or chicken pot pie in the Italian tapestried banquettes of Hersh's Orchard Inn.

But his other restaurant -- Ralphie's Diner in Timonium -- is reflecting the times, rather than changing with them. Business is up 7 percent, even though the average single dinner check ($13) is about half what it is at his other restaurant.

"Ralphie's," Mr. Pachino says thankfully, "is in the right place at the right time."

Slashing prices

Carrol's Creek, which is facing a 10 percent sales slump, has taken even more dramatic measures. In February, it reduced entree prices by $3, making the dinner salad an a la carte item. The restaurant has also relaxed its dress code.

Coupons are also a way of life these days, much to the chagrin of Jeffrey Jacobs, Carrol's Creek manager and part owner.

"It seems to bring out the cheaper customers. We get people trying to use dinner coupons at brunch. They try to switch them to get a larger benefit," Mr. Jacobs says.

Rather than disappoint customers, restaurants like the Milton Inn in Sparks have started a waiting list when people call and find the restaurant already booked. Only 20 percent of these callers actually wind up getting in, but owner John Tilghman says prospective guests appreciate the effort.

"The competition and recession have made me demand more from our service," he says.

That also means putting prospective employees to the test.

"A lot of people look at [the two-page written exam] and walk out the door," he says.

Meanwhile, at Henry & Jeff's, servers now receive silent pagers with their work aprons. When a meal is ready, the chef pages the hTC server, rather then yelling through the kitchen and dining room.

"Whatever edge you have in service or food is going to help you," says Jeffrey Pressman, co-owner of Henry & Jeff's. Overall, he has found business improving at his deli-restaurant-sidewalk cafe. His top sellers -- chicken quesadillas, roast turkey platter and meatloaf -- are all under $10.

"The economy helped us," Mr. Pressman says. "People are looking for less expensive alternatives. And we offer one."

For Mr. Gettier, all of this reinforces something he already knows: It's a gamble opening a restaurant.

So far, he's been heartened by one trend, though.

He says, "At the Conservatory, I used to say to friends, 'Why don't you come by for dinner?' They'd say, 'Oh, we'd like to, but we've got a mortgage, a car payment.' Now they actually stop by."

BEST AND WORST

Here are the best and worst cities in the South Atlantic region in which to open a restaurant:

TOP 10

1. Ocala, Fla.

2. Fort Pierce, Fla.

3. Bradenton, Fla.

4. Anderson, S.C.

5. Lakeland-Winter Haven, Fla.

6. Charlotte, N.C.-Gastonia, N.C.-Rock Hill, S.C.

7. Hickory, N.C.

8. Fort Myers-Cape Coral, Fla.

9. West Palm Beach-Boca Raton-Delray Beach, Fla.

10. Athens, Ga.

BOTTOM 10

1. Washington, D.C.

2. Charleston, W.Va.

3. Panama City, Fla.

4. Columbus, Ga.

5. Albany, Ga.

6. Wilmington, Del.

7. Savannah, Ga.

8. Charlottesville, Va.

9. Roanoke, Va.

10. Baltimore

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