First The Markets, Then The Restaurants?

Our Food section today writes about the state of the local restaurant industry, which is worried about the current downturn. Here's its report:

At Jaleo and other restaurants, sales were slow during the presidential debate but have remained otherwise stable. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

September historically is slow for Washington restaurants in an election year. Congress heads home to campaign. Many locals stay in to watch the debates: On the night of Barack Obama and John McCain's first face-off, ThinkFood Group, which runs Oyamel, Cafe Atlantico, Minibar and three Jaleo restaurants, reported a 26 percent drop in business. Last week's vice presidential debate cut the number of diners at Brasserie Beck by 32 percent for the evening.

But restaurateurs fear that this year's slowdown might have less to do with the natural political rhythms than with the daily warnings of an economic meltdown and wild gyrations in the stock market that have depleted 401(k) accounts. In other words: It's the economy, stupid. "It's too soon to tell, but that doesn't mean I'm not terrified," says James Alefantis, co-owner of Buck's Fishing and Camping and Comet Ping Pong in Northwest. "The first thing people cut is going out to dinner."

Washington restaurants have a reputation for being recession resistant. Government workers know their employer isn't going out of business. With no immediate end in sight to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, defense contractors, a key piece of the local economy, have little fear that orders will dry up. Lobbyists always want to get their message to members of Congress, and how better to do that than over a steak?

Those conditions have helped Washington buck a national decline in dining out. The National Restaurant Association says that in August restaurants reported lower same-store sales, the eighth decrease in 10 months. Research firm NPD Group says Americans increasingly are taking brown-bag lunches to work to save money.

Washington has had its share of high-profile closures, including Restaurant K, Butterfield 9 and Viridian. But the NRA reports that overall Washington restaurant sales are expected to rise 4.6 percent, to $2.3 billion, in 2008. "Surprisingly enough, we haven't felt [a slowdown] yet, but that doesn't give me much hope," says Paul Cohn, co-founder of Capital Restaurant Concepts, which owns nine restaurants including Georgia Brown's and Paolo's. "There's going to be a trickle-down effect. We can't be this lucky forever."

By Dan Beyers  |  October 8, 2008; 9:00 AM ET
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Yeah, sales are lower than this time last year, and guests are joking about their "201K's", but business is nothing like as bad as it was in late 2001. I suspect more restaurants are threatened by the unavailability of credit to finance day-to-day operations than by sluggish sales.

Posted by: ocassiuso | October 9, 2008 12:09 AM

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