Restaurateurs defy soft economy

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Whether we are in a recession or not may depend upon your definition.

We live in a statistically wealthy area but things certainly are not going as well as we would like. Many restaurants requiring large investments have been built here in recent years; planned in rosier days and opened just in time to meet a business slowdown.

We wanted to discover what the new locations and the old standbys have been doing to prosper in a time of tight sales and increases in their costs of doing business. The simple answer that we heard seems to be common sense; provide value for your customers money and offer something unique.

A generation ago we talked about our economy as government based and recession-proof, but now our biggest regional employer is the hospitality industry, and as we saw with the travel decline after 9-11, things are no longer as predictable as they used to be.

Alexandrias restaurant market can be divided into three distinct segments. The least stable is the tourist industry. Small fluctuations in the national economy can determine whether a family will visit us at all, and if so if they will stay for two days or four, and dine on fast food or some of our more interesting options.

The second is comprised of visitors here to do business or lobby our government, and business travel and entertainment is usually one of the first corporate expenses cut in hard times. The third and most stable is the local social and business dining component, but even that has weakened recently.

The Crystal City Sports Pub has been here for 15 years, and is on Sports Illustrateds list of the best 20 sports bars in America. The owners actively seek the tourist/tour-bus business, but believe the heart of their success comes from the repeat customers who live in the area and the business travelers who return regularly to the same nearby hotels.  

Art Dougherty is one of the four partners who committed the restaurant to the expensive construction of a large third floor banquet room and hired Executive Chef William OBrien to upgrade the cuisine. Dougherty thinks their price points are reasonable enough that they shouldnt be hurt by a general slowdown and they are willing to make long term investments to bring new talent and facilities to the same building to offer more to their repeat customers. They are trying to cover a lot of bases to attract sports fans as well as provide a safe family environment, and their $12.99 Sunday brunch buffet may be the best food value in the whole metropolitan area to help bring in new business. 

Chef Troy Clayton has run Geranio for 10 years. His business is slightly ahead of last years and he credits strong communications with his guests and absorbing cost increases while maintaining high quality food and service. He has not increased prices for six years and says his customers appreciate it. Troy thinks that the more good restaurants there are close by, the better it is for everyones business as more diners are attracted to discover new tastes. He feels that the unique character of Old Town is a result of many of the businesses being family owned and run.

We dont resemble a mall full of the same national chains with the same menus and I enjoy watching my kids do their homework at a corner table when we are quiet, Clayton said, adding that the passion an owner feels for his own business while he watches his family grow up in it probably translates into a more pleasant experience for diners than that which is created by a management trainee at a chain.

Chef Jamie Leeds was on the fast track in New York cooking in high visibility restaurants and then continued her success at the helm of 15 RIA in the District. A few years ago she and partner Sandy Lewis opened the very popular Hanks Oyster Bar in the Dupont neighborhood and she duplicated it in Old Town ten months ago. 

It is certainly no surprise that many well respected owners and chefs attribute a loyal clientele to good food and value, but Jamie adds an additional thought. She tries to take extra-good care of her staff; and although she  pays a higher wage than is the norm, feels that her total costs are lower in the long run since she doesnt have to spend extra time and money advertising for and training a constant flow of new workers. Happy employees also tend to encourage customers to return more often. Leeds also reaches out personally to local businesses with invitations and special offers to help fill her tables.

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