Restaurant changes

Tupelo restaurant owner Giovanna Azevedo is taking her staff to France this week.
It’s not a business move you’d expect in the middle of a recession. But, Azevedo, the owner of the Bistro on Park, said she wanted to thank her employees for their work over the holidays when the restaurant had “an amazing couple of months.”
Azevedo also thinks her business will benefit if her employees take a few classes at cooking school Le Cordon Bleu and learn more about the French bistro philosophy.
She bought six plane tickets during the holidays, not knowing the economy would continue to worsen. In hindsight, Azevedo said she still would have done it.
“We don’t know if next year is going to get any worse and this might be our only opportunity,” she said. “The economy isn’t going to get any better if people don’t spend money.”
As a whole, the National Restaurant Association forecasts that the country’s restaurants will be down 1 percent in sales this year compared with last year after inflation is figured in. Yet, the restaurant industry still is forecast to ring up $566 billion in sales.
In Mississippi, the NRA recorded $2.9 billion in sales at the state’s restaurants last year. Jobwise, the association says restaurants account for 9.4 percent of the state’s total employment. And, restaurant employment in the state is forecasted to grow 17.7 percent by 2018.
Scaling back
But local restaurant owners say they aren’t seeing the labor growth right now during the tough economic times. Many have scaled back on waitstaff and are finding ways to run their businesses more efficiently. Some restaurants now charge for previously free items like bread, refills, water and extra sauce or salad dressing.
They also are trying new ways to get customers in the doors.
Lee Cauthen, general manager of the Downtown Grill on the Oxford Square, said he’s noticed customers being “a little more protective of what they are spending.”
So about a month ago, the Grill added a small plate menu for dinner that cuts the price of an average entree in half.
“It’s been received well,” he said. “I think people are just looking for deals.”
Customers are staying away from the most expensive items on the menu, he said.
It’s the same story at 16-year-old restaurant Mama’s Menu in Corinth.
“A lot of people are eating hamburgers instead of steak,” said owner Keith Wilkins. “The people are still coming out. They’re just cutting back on price.”
At the Grill, Cauthen said the restaurant now offers daily specials that are geared at attracting more customers with lower ticket prices.
But the Grill isn’t the only one with the “daily specials” idea, and Cauthen said competition on the Square is high, especially in the past year.
“Everybody in these times is trying to get as much business as they can,” he said. “It’s just tough – not to adapt but to get the customer base in.”
Foot traffic is down nationally. In January, the nation’s restaurants reported the 17th consecutive month of negative customer traffic. Yet, traffic in January – the most recently reported number – was up 1 percent from December.
And when customers do choose to eat out, NRA said this year they will choose restaurants that “deliver value, convenience and healthier options.”
In Tupelo, Rob and Leeann Lesley are offering new lunch items every day at Romie’s Grocery in an effort to give customers a reason to eat out.
“Where you might have had a customer come in three times a week, now they come in one time,” Rob Lesley said.
But even with the change in customer patterns, the Lesleys last week opened a second restaurant, Romie’s Barbeque. They think it will be successful because it targets the $10 lunch crowd, instead of the $15 lunch.
And from a business standpoint, the Lesleys have been more cautious with their expenses for their second location. They started working on the restaurant last fall and paid for items as they went along, instead of borrowing money.
The Lesleys also opted to use disposable plates and cutlery, further cutting down on labor costs.
And at the main Romie’s, the vegetable selection has been scaled back from 12 daily options to 10.
“The economy has just really caused us to be more aware of what’s going on in our restaurant,” Rob Lesley said. “We have to be more efficient. We look at everything. We’re trying to work smarter.”
He added, “It is definitely a struggle and you just try to figure out each day what it takes to make people come in the door.”
Cauthen said the Grill also has adapted by not opening its entire restaurant to diners when traffic is low. In addition, the main bar at the Grill was moved downstairs this year in celebration of the business’ 20th anniversary.
“Since we moved our bar downstairs, it’s sparked a new interest with the Downtown Grill,” Cauthen said. “We feel confident our future here is bright.”
Azevedo at the Bistro also said she is preparing her restaurant for the future. She saved money during the busy times and took on a 10 percent business partner this year to help infuse capital lost by smaller crowds.
“You have to persevere,” she said. “Owning your owner business is a crapshoot. I can go away and work for someone else but that’s not what I’ve worked so hard to do.”
Contact Carlie Kollath at (662) 678-1598 or

Carlie Kollath/Daily Journal

Click video to hear audio