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Local restaurants stay afloat in spiraling economy

BY CHRIS CLARK | APRIL 02, 2009 7:42 AM

Though frigid winter weather and a spiraling economy have rocked the restaurant industry, local owners are cooking up new ideas to bring in more customers this spring.

The recession has restricted spending, forcing owners to cut costs. In some cases, that means employees are getting fewer hours, smaller tips, and even being laid off.

“People don’t have the disposable income they did before,” said Jim Mondanaro, owner of Fresh Food Concepts. “I don’t think any restaurants are thriving. From casual to upscale dining, business is inconsistent.”

So local restaurateurs are getting creative in tough times.

Mondanaro — who owns several restaurants, including Joseph’s Steakhouse, Givanni’s, and Bread Garden Market — said he is grateful to be in Iowa City, where owners aren’t seeing effects as devastating as other parts of the country.

“We’re in a pretty safe place here near the university,” he said. “Business isn’t as brisk as it used to be, but people are still going out to eat.”

Local chef Kurt Friese agrees with Mondanaro.

“The university acts as a buffer,” said Friese, the owner of Devotay, 117 N. Linn St. “Iowa City hasn’t been hit as hard as other parts of the country.”

Still, tough times motivated him to make some changes, including lowering some menu prices and also selling wines for half-price on Tuesdays.

“People seem to appreciate it,” he said.

At Linn Street Café, 121 N. Linn St., owner Frank Bowman has noticed less foot traffic and a slight decrease in reservations since last summer’s flood.

“A night at Hancher [Auditorium] and dinner at Linn Street used to go hand-in-hand,” he said.
But he isn’t letting dwindling business get the best of him.

“We are going to start sending out e-mails and posting promotions on our website,” he said.

Next week, Linn Street Café will begin offering a five-course dinner for two at $35 per person — an amount drastically lower than menu prices.

Bowman is not the only one trying to make his restaurant affordable for frugal customers.

On Monday, Coralville restaurant Vesta, 849 Quarry Road, announced a new deal — “Dinner for Two,” a four-course meal for $50.

Though Vesta had seen slow business in previous months, co-owner Nick Craig said he can’t identify the cause because his restaurant has only been open since June 2008. He’s trying to appeal to budget-conscious customers, he said, and he has seen a boost in business over the last two weeks.

“It helps people know they are going to get a quality meal at a set price before they even walk in the door,” Craig said.

Besides offering specials, Craig said Vesta is also trying to save money internally. During lunch hours, the staff has been reduced to one or two employees who work alongside the owners.

“We are trying to learn to work more efficiently inside the restaurant,” he said.

Bowman said Linn Street Café also had to cut back on staff because of decreased revenue.

This fall, three servers will cover the weekend work previously handled by five, and Bowman said he expects sales to go up after the first quarter of the year.

“We are trying to roll with it; we are trying to ride it out,” he said. “And we’re knocking on wood at the same time.”


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