Eateries react to downturn
By Michael Theis
For the Chronicle
Liz Gallery noticed the economy going south. She has a business to care for, so she reached for a book for guidance. Her business is the Stone Soup Bistro on German street, the book was M.F.K. Fisher’s “How to Cook a Wolf.” Written in 1942, it addressed a culinary world under the constraints of a depression and the start of World War II food rationing. It was a world, that like today, that was having a hard time putting good food on its plate. Inspired by this Depression-era cooking manifesto, which started off some recipes with instructions to borrow money to buy ingredients, the menu at the Stone Soup Bistro has evolved to what Gallery describes as “One-World Peasant Cuisine,” highlighting the staple foods of cultures from across the globe.
Gallery is not alone. Up and down German Street, restaurants and bars are adjusting to a turbulent economic crisis that means fewer people are going out for a nice meal. Coupled with the winter decrease in tourism, it makes for trying times for the area’s restaurateurs.
To save money, some restaurants have had to put off upgrades. The Blue Moon Cafe on Princess Street has delayed the installation of beer taps. Mary Beth Kilmer, manager of the Blue Moon Cafe, says it’ll be bottles and cans served at her bar until at least the springtime. It was a choice between upgrading the facility or keeping everyone on staff. And she did not want to lay off her employees. Restaurants across Shepherdstown are resorting to flexible scheduling of employees, sending home non-essential staff when business is slow.
Restaurant owners and managers stress the importance of being flexible during the recession. Case in point, a couple months after winning Taste of the Town, the 3-Onions Restaurant made a decision to change its concept to a martini bar and lounge. This unfortunately resulted in them having to lay off a lot of the staff, as they were not needed for the new concept.
The food was great, says Pete Lyons, the restaurant manager, but unfortunately people don’t have the money to spend dining out in these difficult times.
Tripp Lowe, Director of Restaurant Operations for Shepherdstown’s 3-Onions Restaurant, The Yellow Brick Bank Restaurant and Rumsey Tavern and Tuscany Grille at the Clarion Hotel, says the martini bar and lounge has been very well-received and is more cost effective to operate.
Food costs are a fraction of what they used to be. People’s desire to continue their social lives and enjoy entertainment is somewhat economy-proof, Lowe says.
The Yellow Brick Bank, too, has had to go through a round of layoffs. In addition, they cut back on their business hours, serving only brunch on Sundays, and closing Mondays. For many in Shepherdstown, the fact that the Yellow Brick Bank cut its hours is a sign of how badly the economy has affected this area. Lowe says it was a difficult decision, but the reality is Sunday nights and Mondays are the eatery’s slowest times of the week, as is the case for the restaurant business in general.
“You have to work harder and smarter during these difficult times,” says Lowe. “You need to be thankful for the customers and employees that support you and continue to work to offer a great product, interesting atmosphere and great service.”
Restaurant owners and managers have repeated the importance of carving a niche for any business.
For the Blue Moon Cafe, the niche is its vegan and vegetarian options. The owners have also had a lot of success making their restaurant a destination for fans of live music, and catering to a college crowd slightly older than that found at Tony’s Pizza and slightly younger than that found at the Mecklenburg. As a result, the business is doing about the same as it was this time last year. Without the expanded bar hours, Kilmer doubts that they’d be in that position.
“When the economy’s good, people celebrate,” says Mecklenburg Inn bartender Emmit Keller. “When the economy’s bad, they drown their sorrows.”
Not all are convinced, however, that the economy is the only force behind this downturn.
George Moody, owner of the Mecklenburg Inn, says it’s too soon to tell if business is down because of the economy, or the seasonal winter decline in tourist revenue. Springtime, he says, is when most restaurants will learn what the real story is. If the tourist traffic stays low, then the economy will be to blame. If not, then the winter of 2009 will be remembered as just another slow winter.
But just to be safe, he recently started serving Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer. It’s usually the cheapest beer for sale at any bar. And it’s been unusually popular.