A small group of local restaurateurs met at Lombardi’s Restaurant on NW Gilman Blvd. this week to discuss local market conditions, challenges and opportunities they face during the recession.
In a meeting hosted by the Washington Restaurant Association (WRA), the group exchanged anecdotal information from their own experiences in the industry over the past year. Restaurateurs agreed that business had stopped worsening, and that loyal local traffic had replaced visitors and business travelers as their core clientele.
But none could determine what 2010 would bring, and some wondered if they’d even make it through the year.
“There’s no consistency,” said WRA President and CEO Anthony Anton. “If you can survive the next four months, you’ll be able to maintain your business. You’re going to make it.”
With little positive economic news on the horizon and business costs going up, the restaurant owners agreed that something must be done in Olympia to ease their tax burden and revisit the state’s minimum wage laws.
According to the WRA, there were 125 Issaquah restaurants bringing in $17,158,801 in revenue in 2009 — a sizable portion of the local economy. Restaurants are also a major employer in the city, with over half the businesses employing at least 10 people.
“We’re the state’s number one private employer,” Anton said.
But those numbers are almost certain to decline as state figures show a 5 percent drop in sales and an industry still shedding jobs.
Despite declines at her Issaquah restaurant, Lombardi’s owner Diane Symms said she managed to keep most of her Issaquah restaurant staff on the payroll, but balancing her books forced her to cut 10 percent of her staff. She rankled at the suggestion the state should raise more taxes on her business to help pay for her unemployed staff or other government programs related to the restaurant industry, such as public health departments.
“We’ve got to manage our discretionary budget,” Symms said. “They should better manage their spending as well.”
Pine Lake Ale House owner Kevin Gattke said food costs to supply his Sammamish restaurant had also moderated. But other cost increases — such as a new lease that is based on real estate values in 2007 — are keeping his margins thin. To help keep his business in the black, Gattke has taken to working both on the floor and in the back office, bussing tables and seating guests when needed.
“That’s what the customer wants,” he said. “They want to see you there, they’re looking for something extra.”
Restaurants are one of a number of groups also struggling with higher unemployment insurance and workers compensation charges this year.
The state’s Employment Security Department estimates the average unemployment insurance rate will jump from 1.55 percent in 2009 to 2.38 percent in 2010.