PORTLAND — As far as customer traffic goes, chef Rob Evans said last week, this winter has been the best one yet for his two restaurants, Hugo’s and Duckfat.
But “best” does not mean his establishments are making as much money as they used to, Evans said, even thought the seats are being filled.
Planning and adjustments have helped keep the two Middle Street restaurants busy, he said. And Evans isn’t alone – several restaurateurs said they’ve had to adjust the way they do business to make sure their fine-dining restaurants weather the recession.
“We often joke, ‘it’s always a recession here in the winter, in Maine,’ at least that’s how we feel in the restaurant business,” Evans said, pointing out how the population drops as many people head south and how Mainers “seem to hunker down” during the colder months.
Weekends have gotten the business through winter, Evans said, while weekdays have seen especially slow business.
Evans introduced a “Cabin Fever” menu in November, offering three-course meals for $25 on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. While his restaurants had offered such specials before, those deals were never aggressively marketed.
“And it paid off, big time,” Evans said. “The key to it being busy and working was the marketing.”
He explained that while the Cabin Fever series, running through the end of April, does not make Hugo’s the kind of money Evans is accustomed to on weekends, when a typical three-course meal may cost $50 per person.
“It fills the seats,” Evans said. “We’re breaking 30 (customers), even 40, on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, where we used to do 10 or 12. Seventeen was a good Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday.”
The food on the Cabin Fever menu is more of the comfort variety, Evans said. The Cabin Fever menu might include a chicken leg with the bone in, while the regular menu might see more refinement: that same leg without the bone. The same food, served differently, at lower cost.
While Hugo’s has had the reputation of being a high-end, special-occasion restaurant, he said, “we’re not an expensive restaurant. Our price points are $20 and below.”
Stephanie Brown, chef owner of the SeaGrass Bistro in Yarmouth, said that while New Year’s Eve was strong for her business, there was a slump in January. On an average weekend night a year ago the restaurant was turning people away, and now seats are just being filled.
Like Evans, Brown has adjusted to the economy. She lowered prices, and spread the word to her customers via e-mail. She has also added lighter, and less-expensive, entrees to the menu, and, for example, is using lower-priced sirloin beef instead of tenderloin in some dishes.
For what her customers would have paid a year ago for one course, now they can buy three, on average, she said.
SeaGrass still offers the same high-quality food, Brown said. “We still stick as local as possible,” she said, “but (are) changing the ingredients to make it more affordable all-around.”
Wholesale food costs have not dropped much, and neither have her fuel costs, she said. But while her bills remain the same, Brown said she thinks of her patrons, without whom “none of this would be running.”
“We’re not compromising on quality or service,” she added. “We still hold integrity to who we are and what we offer from when we opened four years ago to today, it’s just that we’re being more socially conscious of our environment and our clientele.”
Brown is also planning community-related activities to bring more people through her door. One activity planned for March 5 is a community music supper, charging $12 for a three-course meal with student musicians from 317 Main Street. On March 12 will be a three-course dinner and a movie for only $12 per person.
“It’s kind of like going to the old bean suppers,” Brown said. “Everybody had the same thing and stood out together as a community.”
In Brunswick, Dana and Nancy Robicheaw opened Clementine’s a year ago. In that time, Dana Robicheaw said, the housing and stock market slumped and gas prices spiked. Food prices have risen, too, he explained, since higher gas prices caused purveyors of the product to add on delivery charges.
“I don’t feel comfortable passing that cost along to my customer,” Robicheaw said. “You can’t take a dish that you’re serving for $22 as an entrée, (and) all of a sudden next week it’s $25.”
Tracking how the recession has impacted his business after only a year is tricky for Robicheaw. “It’s almost like a benefit in some aspects, because our first year was theoretically like a terrible economic year, so if that is our starting point, we can really only go up from there,” he said.
Nonetheless, some weekly customers at Clementine’s have become monthly customers. However, Robicheaw said, “people are always going to go out and celebrate birthdays and anniversaries and special occasions, and if that’s what we’re known as, it’s fine; people are having anniversaries and birthdays every day.”
To help attract customers, Clementine’s is offering a four-course chef’s tasting menu for parties of two at $45 per person, or $55 with paired wines.
One restaurateur who has seen the ups and downs before is David Turin, chef proprietor at David’s at Monument Square in Portland and the newer David’s 388 in South Portland. He has been a restaurant proprietor for 25 years.
“We have seen ups and downs over the years, there’s no doubt about it,” Turin said. “This one seems a little bit different. … it doesn’t feel as extreme to us at this point, only because maybe we’re just more established.”
Turin said he doesn’t believe the sky is falling, although his traffic is off this year.
“Last year was the best year we ever had,” Turin said. “And the year before that was the best year that we ever had … we’re at a level where we were the year before last … business is still solid, but it’s not record-breaking.”
Turin said his restaurants’ business model has been to be upscale, but at the same time value-conscious. “We’ve never been the most expensive place on the block,” he said. “We’ve really focused always on trying to bring the best value to the customer for what we’re offering.”
The Portland restaurant, where the menu includes gourmet pizzas, tends to be more casual than the South Portland establishment, Turin said. “And there have been more pizzas (ordered),” he said, “so the sales mix tends to be leaning toward some of the less expensive items.”
With the recession said to be getting worse before it gets better, Turin said, “we’re doing everything we can to make sure that we’re keeping our pencil as sharp as we possibly can … we’ve been really aggressively pursuing trying to make sure that we’re keeping our costs as low as we can on the things that we can, so that we can really focus on our core business, which is serving great food and having great service.
“If there was ever a time when we had to be the very best we could be,” he added, “it’s now.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or [email protected]

chef1.jpgRob Evans, proprietor/chef at upscale Hugo’s in Portland, is bringing customers through his door during in economic times with a “Cabin Fever” menu. (Lear photo)
chef2.jpgDana Robicheaw, a chef and owner at Clementine’s in Brunswick, said he tries to make sure his own increased food costs are not reflected in what his customers are paying. (Lear photo)
Approximately 60 restaurants from Ogunquit to Augusta will participate in RestaurantWeekME, a 10-day event where they will offer three-course meals for $20.09, $30.09 or $40.09, depending on the establishment.
Some of the restaurants participating in the March 1-10 promotion are:
Solo Bistro, Bath; The Great Impasta, Brunswick; Sea Glass (Inn by the Sea), Cape Elizabeth; Foreside Tavern, Falmouth;  Broad Arrow Tavern, Great American Grill, Gritty McDuff’s, Maine Dining Room (Harraseeket Inn), Pavillion Restaurant (Hilton Garden Inn), Freeport; Inn on Peaks Island and Cockeyed Gull, Peaks Island; 555, Bar Lola, Blue Spoon, Bresca, Bull Feeney’s, Cinque Terre, DiMillo’s Floating Restaurant, Hugo’s, Local 188, Old Port Sea Grill, Pom’s Thai Taste, Twenty Milk Street, Shay’s, Evangeline, Back Bay Grill, Brian Boru, Fore Street, Eve’s at the Garden, Cafe at Pat’s, The Grill Room, The Front Room, The Great Lost Bear, Gritty McDuff’s, Borealis Breads Bakery & Bistro, Ribollita and Vignola, Portland; and SeaGrass Bistro, Yarmouth.
Log on to restaurantweekme.com for more information and the complete statewide list of participating restaurants.

filed under: