The Side Dish: Getting Back to Basics for Restaurant Recovery

I’m encouraged by a recent bit in Saturday’s New York Times about a restaurateur who was dreaming of Detroit. According to the op-ed piece, Charles Sorel, owner of Le Petit Zinc, felt as though the landscape of Detroit 2009 was equivalent to the streets of New York City in the 80s, and was undaunted in his goal of opening a new restaurant. Within a community beaten down by the failing auto industry in recent years, riddled with unemployment and homelessness, Sorel was surprised to find a welcome group of fellow restaurateurs and chefs who were willing to help along the road to the restaurant’s opening day. Even more surprisingly, once the space had opened, he found customers who were willing to traverse the city’s disheartened streets to dine at his eatery. Sorel attributes it to growth in an area where there has only been devastation and hardship.

“Open a business anywhere else, and no one will notice,” Charles said. “Open it in Detroit and everyone talks about it.”

But recent reports are mixed on the growth of the restaurant industry itself. According to the NPD Group, a market research firm, restaurant sales have slid too dramatically over the last year, and have a dismal recovery outlook. Over the summer, restaurant visits declined an overall 3.6%, with shortcomings across every segment of the industry.

“There are a variety of factors contributing to the declines in restaurant visits and spending, including high unemployment, and another is the difference between food prices at home and food prices away-from-home,” says Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst and vice president at NPD. “Food prices at supermarkets are less than a year ago, while restaurant prices are higher than a year ago.”

Is there hope? Entrepreneur says yes, finding that this may actually be a good time to open a new restaurant, with prices on  rental space, kitchen equipment, and business services much cheaper across the country than previous years.

So perhaps Sorel is really on to something. Why continue to put so much emphasis on our government to help rebuild and revitalize when ultimately, we are the people who would most benefit from a community effort? As industry leaders, we have the ability to step back and build from the ground up in areas that need to be rebuilt, providing food of recognition and comfort, a place of reprieve, a space of hope and growth for our fellow neighbors. Maybe it’s time to buck the ideals of the reality food channel and five star reviews – the glitz and glamour of great personalities, shiny pans, food with pomp and circumstance  – and get back to basics by rebuilding our communities one restaurant at a time.

~Jennifer Heigl

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