From Katy McLaughlin, The Wall Street Journal: Shoots of optimism are emerging in the high-end restaurant world.
Expense-account spending is trickling
back and consumers are starting to shell out for luxuries again. Prices
for some specialty ingredients have come down. And good weather
conditions in many parts of the country are making for the best crop in
years of wild mushrooms, strawberries and asparagus.
The combination is cheering
restaurateurs, who are rolling out festive baby-lamb roasts,
multicourse shad dinners and dishes laden with wild mushrooms to
celebrate the season. For chefs, it's a welcome change from last
spring, when many restaurants weathered the worst of the economic storm
by promoting discounts, comfort food, cheaper drinks and bar snacks.
"Last year we were in freefall at this time of year. Now we're in
recovery," says Daniel Scherotter, chef and owner of Palio d'Asti, in
San Francisco's financial district. Last March, when the Dow hovered
around 7000, Mr. Scherotter says he saw a dramatic drop in customer
count and spending. Today, sales are up 30%, with more orders for veal,
baby lamb and high-end wine, Mr. Scherotter says.
Like the economic recovery overall, the
restaurant rebound is spotty and uncertain. The Austin, Texas,
restaurant Olivia says sales are up 25% over the first quarter last
year; Lantern in Chapel Hill, N.C., is up 2% and Savoy in New York is
up 15%. Many restaurants say their stronger first quarters this year
are back to 2008 sales levels. High-end chains, a category consisting
mainly of upscale steakhouses, saw a 17% sales decline in 2009,
according to Technomic, a Chicago restaurant consultant, and will
probably see a 1% to 3% decline this year, mostly because discounting
cuts into sales although traffic is up. Restaurateurs and analysts say
that more people are visiting high-end restaurants, though they are
some parts of the country, nature is lending a hand to chefs. On the
West Coast and particularly in California, lots of rain this winter has
yielded a huge wild-mushroom crop and an early harvest of other spring
favorites, from fava beans to English peas. The bounty means chefs can
afford to be generous with special items without raising prices.
Oregon Mushrooms, which ships wild
mushrooms to restaurants around the country, says it is selling morels,
a wild mushroom harvested in the spring, for $20 a pound wholesale,
compared with $33 a pound last year. Restaurateurs in California, where
spring hits first, are paying even less. At Oliveto in Oakland, Calif.,
chef Paul Canales says for the first time in his career he paid $12.50
a pound for morels—half the typical price. Professional foragers stop
by the restaurant offering wares they collect from Northern California
forests, Ms. Canales says.
'We've had a few really bad years of spring," Mr. Canales says.
"This one is going to be amazing." Oliveto has been getting local
asparagus all month—"typically you don't see that until April," Mr.
Cal Peternell, chef at the Café at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, which
saw a 5% sales decline last year, says the low price of morels means he
can pile them onto pizza and over pasta without charging extra.
Suppliers have also been cutting prices on some high-end meats. Blue
Duck Tavern in Washington is charging $28 for an herb-crusted roasted
rack of lamb that last year went for $35. The reason the restaurant can
charge less: Executive chef Brian McBride is paying $5 a pound for rack
of lamb from boutique supplier Elysian Fields—about 35% less than he
paid last year. His restaurant is starting to see an uptick in
business. Last weekend brought in $10,000 more than the same weekend a
year ago, says Mr. McBride.
Keith Martin of Elysian Fields says a
steep drop-off in sales meant that he spent the last year growing his
client list by 40% and carefully pricing each cut of meat in order to
satisfy price-conscious restaurateurs. Two years ago he barely had to
market his product at all, Mr. Martin says. His partner, the celebrity
chef Thomas Keller, helped promote the brand and restaurants simply
called and bought up all the meat available.
It is still too soon to tell how the
spring harvest will shape up in the Midwest and on the East Coast,
though many of the most widely available spring vegetables come from
California. California grows nearly 75% of all the asparagus produced
in the U.S., for instance. California asparagus began appearing in
supermarkets this week. Though it is similar to the asparagus available
off-season from Mexico and Peru, asparagus quality is largely a matter
of how quickly it gets from the farm to the table, says San Francisco
chef Melissa Perello of Frances restaurant, which can mean a local
supply is superior.
The Wall Street Journal