Editor’s note: This is the first in a weekly feature that profiles an executive who has found an innovative solution to a problem – a solution that may resonate with others. If you know of a good business person for a Problem Solved profile, please contact Business Editor Carol Coultas at ccoultas@pressherald.com.

Steve and Michelle Corry were understandably a little nervous when he bought a new building and spent about $110,000 to add a lounge, a pastry kitchen, a new entrance, a new wine cellar and 25 additional seats to his 65-seat, upscale Portland restaurant in May 2006.

“It was a little nerve-wracking,” Steve Corry said. “Suddenly we had these massive expenses. We were losing a lot of sleep.”

In a stroke of good timing, in April 2007, Corry was named Best New Chef by Food and Wine magazine. But he didn’t get to savor that success for long. In September 2008, Wall Street banking giant Lehman Bros. filed for bankruptcy, and the economy went into a tailspin.

Abruptly, customers started shying away from popular entrees like $30 grass-fed beef. Bookings for corporate parties, where executives would linger over bottle after bottle of California Cabernet, suddenly dried up.

“The handwriting was clear,” Corry said. “We had to figure out a new game plan. And in this business, a bunch of small gambles can make or break you.”

It was tempting to slash prices, and dress down the menu to convert to more casual fare. But Corry amped up Five Fifty-five’s upscale flavor instead.

Michelle expanded the wine list. They updated the chairs, light fixtures and artwork, and added a $55 five-course tasting menu, complete with recommendations for food and wine pairings. The format encouraged diners to stay for hours, and indulge in a bottle of wine, instead of just a glass.

“Rather than dine, dash, or go off to a show,” Corry said, “dinner was the show.”

The investment paid off. In the 10 weeks of summer of 2007, Five Fifty-five was at capacity every night. Corry was serving 175 meals a night, instead of the 125 he had been serving before in the smaller space.

“It was a risk to try to make it elegant and more special,” he said. “It seemed counterintuitive at the time, but it was one of the greatest decisions we ever made.”

The idea of sharpening his focus on elegant dining has continued to serve Corry well. In recent years, he has started to feel squeezed by competition as other high-end restaurants such as Hugo’s and Vignola Cinque Terre have undergone major overhauls, and other new restaurants have flooded the market.

“The Portland restaurant scene has exploded to the point where there’s not enough to go around,” he said.

In response, rather than water down his product, he has scaled up again.

Last December, Corry added a private dining room for parties of up to 35 that can be rented for $350. Diners can tailor their menus and their music to suit their tastes; they can have their own private bartender, pastry chef and even their own oyster shucker.

While sales from Five Fifty-five have continued to be affected by all the new competition, any losses have been more than offset by revenues from the private dining room. In the first six months of 2014, Corry’s total revenues for the private dining room surpassed what they were for all of 2013, even before hitting what is typically the most lucrative part of the season, the six months between July and New Year’s Eve.

And it’s not just the bookings that are bolstering the bottom line. The restaurant is getting exposure to people who are coming to private parties who may not have been to the restaurant before.

“It’s just taken off. It’s absolutely astonishing,” Corry said.

Jennifer Van Allen can be contacted at 791-6313 or at:

jvanallen@pressherald.com