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Local restaurants brace for the long summer ahead

It’s only May, but it already feels like August and it appears some of the snowbirds have left early this year. St. Pete is an eclectic town with its own base of people, however the area still feels the seasonal pinch.

Several local restaurants have cut operating hours already. Paddy Burke’s is closing Monday and Tuesday. Beginning June 1st Island Seafood will be closed Sunday and Monday. St. Pete Brasserie is closed Sunday and is no longer open for lunch. Z Grille is closed on Sundays. An exception is the currently popular and new Cassis, which will be adding breakfast soon. Other exceptions are Steve Westphal’s 400 Beach, Parkshore Grill and The Hangar. Apparently an angel has touched him on the forehead as he seems to be immune to the seasonal shifts.
That being said, I have really seen restaurants bounce back this year, regardless of what the national surveys are saying. People are a little more selective as to where they spend their dollars, though. Most are electing to dine out on the weekends these days as compared to the previous two to three times per week a few years back.
What should restaurants be doing to promote themselves? The biggest feedback I receive from readers is the specials restaurants offer on a consistent weekly basis. People have started planning their schedules around these events and they keep going back. Those are the folks that often end up being regulars as they get to know the servers and bartenders. It’s a formula that’s really worked for places like Cafe Alma, Ceviche and St. Pete Brasserie. Secondary to that are the early dining specials (early birds) offering discounts to patrons if they arrive before the dinner rush. The most popular of those has been Salt Rock Grill. These incentives are so much more powerful than generic advertising and in many cases restaurants are still able to turn a profit with drink sales and repeat business.
I have written before about many factors affecting the operations of local establishments. High rents and merchant fees are definitely issues that prospective restaurant owners should heavily consider before jumping into the business. While many restaurant owners are passionate about food, they may not always consider all the terms in their leases, which are often written on a graduated scale. Merchant fees can be a slippery slope if you don’t deal with a trusted company. That combined with not understanding food costs can be a recipe for disaster (no pun intended).
Several restaurants have either stopped hiring executive chefs for their newer properties or have converted to kitchen managers/cooks. A kitchen manager is someone usually qualified to be considered a chef without the status, pay and educational pedigree of an executive chef. Will quality suffer? That remains to be seen. By the way, I’m one of those people that highly respects the term “chef” and I don’t use it lightly. Although I’m qualified, you will not find me calling myself a chef because I don’t work in restaurant kitchens every day. I defer the title to those who have the moxie to do the job. It takes several (at least) years of grueling work to earn that title. When a chef puts their name on something, they are going to try to do their best to make their dishes shine. Just something to think about.
I’ve seen some morale issues among staff at several places in town. It’s really important to treat staff well if they are expected to offer good service to patrons. It seems the most complaints about service are in the restaurants where the staff are telling me they don’t like the way they are being treated. Holding tips for long periods and generally treating staff poorly will end up costing restaurants in the long run. Staff meals would be a nice addition, but that’s my two cents.
The bottom line is things are going to be okay if restaurant owners are smart about their choices in how they run their businesses and how they decide to entice people into their restaurants. So far, St. Pete restaurants as a whole are doing better than expected in this economy.

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