Empty feeling

The Baltimore Sun

A downtrodden Brent Ludtke stared at his nearly empty South Baltimore restaurant yesterday afternoon and lamented the recent drop in business.

A year ago, Ludtke would seat about a dozen tables for lunch. But at 1 p.m. yesterday, only one of the 12 tables in SoBo Cafe was occupied - a sour side effect of the economic recession.

"I'm shaking right now," he said. "I've been here 10 years and I could possibly lose my restaurant."

Squeezed by gasoline prices creeping toward $4 a gallon, rising grocery bills and a volatile stock market, consumers are eyeing ways to cut unnecessary costs. Expensive meals out are easy targets. So restaurants are feeling the pressure just as their own food and utility costs are rising. As a result, many of them are scaling back staff, portion sizes and menu offerings or charging more for certain items.

The national trade group that represents the restaurant industry said that people continue to go out to eat at roughly the same frequency as in recent years, but the economic pressure has pinched what they're willing to spend. That is creating a "domino effect" as people eat out at less expensive places or choose cheaper dishes than before.

In turn, most midlevel restaurants across the state, already saddled with higher costs, are making less profit than last year, said Lauren Shipley, director of marketing for the Maryland Restaurant Association.

"We went to Red Lobster last week, but that was special," said Kylene Vennard, as she, her husband, Matt, and their three children ate sack lunches from Johnny Rockets in the Inner Harbor yesterday.

The Vennards, who live at Fort Meade and were in Baltimore for the day, mixing some medical appointments with touring the Inner Harbor, say they've cut back to going out for dinner one night a week - and then usually at a fast-food joint or a low-cost family restaurant.

"All the prices are going up," Matt Vennard said, as his son fed french fries and chicken nuggets to a bird. "Looking at the menu just now in there, they had tape over all the low prices."

At SoBo Cafe, Ludtke is diluting the sangria with some fruit juice and wrapping a little less meat into the chicken burritos.

"You're seeing more plate - I'll tell you that," Ludtke said. "I'm trying to look at any way I can to cut costs."

On weekdays, Donna's Cafe in Mount Vernon scaled back the number of employees on every shift, said the manager, Fabienne Jones.

If a surge of customers comes, sometimes kitchen staff will have to help handle the extra business - some of it drawn in by a new $5 small-plates menu.

"It's hard," Jones said. "Not every day is a busy day, and sometimes when it's busy during the week, everybody's got to pitch in."

Some diners suspect they're seeing scaled-back portions.

The Rev. Holger Roggelin, pastor of the Zion Church of the City of Baltimore, thinks the pies at Pizzeria Uno have shrunk, and the lines outside other Inner Harbor restaurants aren't as long as they used to be.

Maria Carrera, a 27-year-old student from Ecuador who eats dinner out nearly every night, says she hasn't noticed restaurants cutting back or scrimping on servings, but she has heard owners bemoaning the cost of doing business and worrying about how to deal with it.

At Greg's Bagels in Belvedere Square, owner Greg Novik posted a sign last week, informing customers that his 80-cent bagels were going up to $1. The increase, he said, doesn't cover the higher costs he is paying for honey, eggs and flour - the three main ingredients of his hand-rolled bagels.

"People have been incredibly understanding," Novik said. "'There was one guy today who said, 'I'm paying $4 for a gallon of gasoline, I can afford $1 for a bagel.'"

At Trattoria Annamaria on Light Street in Federal Hill, a sign in the window apologizes for the recent increase of 25 cents per sandwich.

"Due to the increased cost of fuel, energy and flour, our prices will increase by 25 cents. The decision is out of our control, but we apologize for the inconvenience."

Beneath it, another document lists the price increases, some up 250 percent in the past year, for staples such as corn, spring wheat, durum wheat, Chicago wheat, eggs and soybeans.

"Gas prices have affected everything," owner Annamarie Christopher said. "The manufacturer has to pay more for the ingredients to be shipped to them, then the distributors pay more for the product and the restaurateur pays more yet.

"There are fewer customers coming in," she added. "And they're buying more lunch meat, less sandwiches. They're cutting back on spending money for a sandwich when they can just make it themselves."

That's the case with Marianne Armstrong, a 25-year-old marketing director who lives in Federal Hill. She used to eat out at least three times a week - largely at neighborhood pubs. But as she's seen the price of a veggie burger rise from $6 to $8 in the past year or so, she's become more selective about spending her money on meals.

Restaurants that offer ethnic dishes are still fair game because Armstrong can't make sushi at home, she said. But she sees burgers and other kinds of American pub grub as unnecessary wastes of money.

"I'm much less likely to go to those restaurants any longer and pay three times for a meal that I could make at home," she said. "My new philosophy is, 'If I can make it myself, why would I go out and pay three times as much?'"

The rise in prices of ingredients, meanwhile, crosses the boundaries of ethnic cuisine. Whether it's rice for sushi, pasta for lasagna or flour for tortillas, chances are it costs more.

"It's really everything - produce, meat, all aspects, everything has gone up," said Carla Luna, manager of Mari Luna, a Mexican restaurant in Pikesville in Baltimore County.

Some restaurants, facing higher operating costs and a downturn in patronage, are offering meal specials to lure back customers.

Between Locust Point and Federal Hill, Arnold Sherman, a frequent diner, says he manages to get through week paying no more than $12 a meal - "ribs night at Don't Know, $10 night at Hull Street Blues, half-priced burger night at the Ropewalk."

But the new $15 entree special at SoBo Cafe hasn't made a big difference for Ludtke. He thinks business will continue to slide until late summer or early fall. He hopes he can hold on that long.

"It's scary because every day it's what phone call am I getting today as far as bills," Ludtke said. "It's never been like this. ... Now it's almost like you have to get a fishing rod out there and try and snag them in."

sam.sessa@baltsun.com

john.woestendiek@baltsun.com

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