Leading Question

By Hannah Wallace June 30, 2009

Gross restaurant sales in SarasotaCounty, as reported to the Florida Department of Revenue, rose to $62 million in February 2009 from $61.3 million in February 2008 and $59.2 million in March 2007. Yet spending in nearly every other consumer category is down. Are restaurateurs faring better than the rest of us?

"That does not jibe with what you hear on the street," says Virginia Haley, president of the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau. Likewise, Bob Kirscher, owner of two Broken Egg restaurants and longtime state and local board member of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, says most restaurateurs are reporting that sales are either flat or down slightly, by 4 percent to 5 percent. Sales at the Siesta Key Broken Egg are down, while Lakewood Ranch location sales are holding, Kirscher says.

Sarasota did see a 5 percent increase in vacation stays January through March this year, Haley says, but group and corporate business dropped by a whopping 37 percent during those same months. Visitors reported spending less on both rooms and dining, with an average of $579 spent per travel party on food and beverage, down from $626 per party last year.

Dr. Bob Anderson, dean of the USF Sarasota-Manatee School of Business, says he can only offer guesstimates as to why Sarasota’s consumers are cutting back in most spending categories—but not restaurants. "It may be that there is more alcohol consumption going on with the food that is served," he offers. He also notes that fine dining restaurants have become much more aggressive in both their pricing and their marketing. The large banner over the entrance of the Polo Grill on Main Street

in Lakewood Ranch advertising 15 entrees for $15 or less is evidence we’ve ushered in a new era of competitiveness among restaurateurs.

Sarasota’s mainstay regulars—affluent part- or full-time residents who dine out more frequently than most, haven’t significantly altered their habits, Kirscher says. Anderson agrees that SarasotaCounty’s older, affluent demographic may be what’s keeping more restaurant doors open this year. "I don’t think the affluent have cut back much at all," he says.

Kirscher notes that most restaurants did not raise their prices when gas prices, and subsequently food prices, were soaring, and now they are hurting because of it. Restaurants may be feeling the pinch because, even with steady or higher sales, they are less profitable and will remain so until the recession lifts and they can raise prices again.

A closer look at restaurant revenues shows there’s been a high season up-tick over the past two years. While January through March revenues have risen year over year, sales during nearly all other months of the year are down. So while annual restaurant revenues may be flat or down slightly, they appear to be rising during high season, even with a recession. That’s at least a glimmer of good news.

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