By John Schaffner
editor@reporternewspapers.net

The Wall Street-to-Main Street economic meltdown is having a significant impact on the restaurant business in Sandy Springs and Buckhead and on the party bookings and special events business this holiday season.

As a result, restaurants are offering value incentives, looking at their pricing and even changing their menus to entice customers to visit their establishments and to return more frequently.

The Reporter asked almost a dozen restaurant owners how the recession is affecting restaurant, holiday party and special events business this year. Almost all reported negative impacts, from minor to significant.

The one exception was Bruce Alterman, owner with his wife, Sally, of The Brickery Grill and Bar at 6125 Roswell Road in Sandy Springs.

“The restaurant has been quite the phenomenon,” he said.

Alterman reported that in the fourth quarter the restaurant’s business is up 10 percent from its best year, and business for the year as a whole is up 4 percent. “That is pretty good in an economy like this.”

But most restaurant owners are making adjustments to try to improve slumping business.

Paul Baldasaro, the COO of the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group, summed it up saying, “Our current economic conditions are allowing restaurant operators to find more innovative ways to add value to their guests’ entertainment budget.”

One example he cited is Buckhead Life’s gift card program: “Through Jan. 31 we are adding 20 percent more to all gift card purchases.” For $100, you get a $120 gift card. If you spend at least $1,000 on gift cards, the bonus rises to 25 percent.

“We are also featuring innovative culinary offerings such as Pricci’s December in Veneto Italy, a three-course menu for $29. We’re partnering with organizations from that region and passing the value on to our guests,” Baldasaro said.

Recognizing that many people are looking for something on the lighter side, Nava has created a Flights to the Southwest experience on weeknights from 5 to 7. “You can enjoy a tasting of three specialty wines or margaritas paired with our Navajitos (little bites) for only $12.95,” Baldasaro said. “This has been really popular with people who still want to go out and have an upscale experience but at a lower price point.”

Pricci is at 500 Pharr Road, and Nava is at 3060 Peachtree Road, both in Buckhead.

Kelley J. Lenahan, managing partner of the Blue Ridge Grill, 1261 W. Paces Ferry Road in Buckhead, said the restaurant’s business is off about 8 percent, “which isn’t too bad.”

She said: “Trying to be sensitive to the economic situation, we have taken some of the more expensive items off of the menu. We try to make sure that our customers have a really good dining experience so that they will want to come back.”

Asked about private parties, Lenahan said that business is off “a little more than 8 percent.”

She said such a decline was anticipated this holiday season. “We actually had one company that had their party here last holiday season tell us at that time, a year ago, that they didn’t think they would be doing it this year” because the company was already experiencing a downturn in business.

Wine by the glass

“Oh, sure, we have been affected,” said Steve Alterman, the owner of the Horseradish Grill at 4320 Powers Ferry Road, across from Chastain Park in Buckhead. “Not terribly bad, but I can see the difference in customer count. Customers also are buying more wine by the glass where before they bought it by the bottle. We saw it at Thanksgiving when we did less business than the previous year.”

He said bookings for Christmas are slower than last year. “Corporate party bookings are off some from previous years. Parties bookings are down, and people are calling later for parties. They may have waited to see if they were going to have enough money to do a party.”

“I certainly think people are watching their disposable income a little more,” said Jeff Trump, an owner of the Brooklyn Cafe, 220 Sandy Springs Circle. “You see it Mondays and Tuesdays. Lunches are good, but you see it more at dinner.”

He explained that “it is kind of hard to tell how much dinners are off because in addition to the economy it has been kind of the perfect storm when it comes to restaurants. You had a presidential debate on a Friday. You had Halloween on a Friday. But also the networks have actually been very good at picking great games on Saturday nights, which affects us greatly. People wouldn’t come here for that.”

He said he also thinks people are anticipating a heavy tax burden next year.

He said Brooklyn Cafe has two customer incentives right now. It uses an e-mail list to offer a free appetizer “to remind people we are here,” and if people buy the traditional gift card, they get an additional $20 gift card to spend at the restaurant.

He added: “Mondays and Tuesdays are perfect nights for us to do charity nights, where a percentage of the sales go to a specified charity. I think the charities are feeling it (the economic downturn) as well.”

Small plates added

Jim Wahlstrom, the director of operations for Ray’s Restaurants, said the company and Ray’s on the River “are doing OK. We’re not experiencing some of the drop in business some other restaurants are experiencing. I think a lot has to do with the longevity of the Ray’s concept.”

Ray’s on the River has been in what is now Sandy Springs for 25 years.

“We are doing some value-oriented things,” Wahlstrom said. “We added small plates … smaller portions of some of the menu entrée items — even dishes such as trout and crab cakes. We also have an early-bird special with smaller portions from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at a price of $20.09 for the year 2009.”

As for parties, “we thought we were going to be a little bit off on event business because of the way the holidays fall this year — Thanksgiving and then you are right there in December. But so far people are booking parties right up to the minute, like today for tonight,” he added. “Let’s just say it definitely is different this year.”

“We’re not feeling the pinch that I am hearing other restaurants are talking about,” Restaurant Eugene general manager Rick Blumberg said. “We are still getting a lot of reservations coming in every day.”

In terms of parties at the restaurant, the small, upscale Buckhead restaurant of chef Linton Hopkins at 2277 Peachtree Road is seeing fewer large crowds, “but we are able to fill in around the smaller parties with individuals. Outside catering is staying steady, but we are getting bookings later,” Blumberg added. “We can do a party of 200 with a two-day notice.”

Restaurant Eugene has not economized on the menu. “We have maintained the integrity of the menu,” he said. “Our first-time diner is right at 40 percent of our business, which is really amazing. But we have a good repeat business of people who come in a couple of times a week or couple of times a month. Also, the hotels have been very good to us in sending business our way.”

The new owner of Mosaic, another smaller Buckhead restaurant at 3097 Maple Drive, responded, “Oh, yeah it is!” when asked if the economy is affecting his business.

“We are about 25 percent down from last year,” said Jody Dean, who has owned the restaurant since July.

Out on a monthly basis

“For the most part, people are looking at their evenings out on a monthly basis, decreasing the times they go out in a month to once or twice,” Dean said. “We may not see them except every other month.”

He said the restaurant was “drawing from households with $100,000 incomes. Now we are hanging on with hotel business during the week.”

He has created a menu of $5 and $7 tapas for the bar and has cut menu prices by 15 percent on every item to entice customers. He said the menu has changed several times since he bought the restaurant, but the menu is seasonal anyway. “We are trying to find more cost-effective menu items.”

He said he has projected business will be down 25 percent for January and February. “If we can break even, we can make it to spring” when the outside patio “becomes a popular draw.”

French sisters Catherine and Aline Silverstine, the owners of La Petite Maison, a small restaurant at 6510 Roswell Road in Sandy Springs, are experiencing a drop in their second year in business. Catherine said business is off 25 percent. She said they do party business, but not all the time.

“Now is the time of the parties,” Catherine said in French-influenced English. “Tomorrow we have a big party here on the patio. And every day now we have an at-lunch party until Christmas.” Asked if they have had problems with parties canceling, she said: “They don’t cancel. … No, no, no.”

Catherine said they have not altered the menu or the prices. “You can get here a salad for $7.50 for lunch, a cup of soup, $5. It is not expensive to lunch. You can have chicken or pasta, $10, with a glass of wine for $6. It is not very expensive.”

Market’s ups and downs

Just up the way at 236 Johnson Ferry Road, Flavor Cafe Bakery owner Peter Teimori said business “is hit or miss. We are a very established business — been here now for three years.”

He pointed to a rather full dining area at 2 p.m. and added: “I think we have done a very good job. It is not that bad.

“It has not affected us as much as other people. Some days are much better than others. Some day the stock market goes down 900 points, then the next day’s a bad day. Some day it goes up 600 to 700 points, it is a good day. If that is affecting it, I am not sure. It is definitely not the same as it was before, but for us it is still OK.”

He said Flavor does catering to offices for lunch and as well as events. “We are doing a Christmas party at which we are feeding 350 people.”

But a couple of bigger corporate clients canceled bookings, Teimori said.

Back at The Brickery, Bruce Alterman attributed the success of his restaurant to the longevity and loyalty of his customer base and the value customers get for their money.

“It helps that we have been a part of their lives for so long — 17 years,” he said. “We are their Wednesday night go-to place (for all-you-can-eat beef ribs). They might have given up a trip to Europe this year, but they don’t give up coming to The Brickery on Wednesday night. The tougher the economy gets, the more we appreciate the loyalty of those customers.”

He said he is seeing more coupons recently, “but that is the reason we put those coupons out there.”

The Brickery’s significant catering business is 2 percent ahead of last year, he said. “Catering business was 6 percent ahead this Thanksgiving holiday and 5 percent ahead for the last Jewish holiday.”

Alterman said theirs is not a high-end catering business, so much of it serves personal events. This time of the year there’s also some corporate party business, primarily in the restaurant.

The Brickery has not cut back on the menu or portions because Alterman doesn’t understand why you would want to change an approach that has built a loyal customer base.

“We have a genuine commitment to start with a knife and a recipe — not something out of a can — and give the customers quality food and good value in the portions,” he said. “Filling a to-go box for the customer is part of that value.”