Restaurant owners struggle to keep prices stable

04/08/2011 9:47 PM |

Just as costs of gasoline, fuel oil and oil-based products have risen in recent months, so, too, have the prices local restaurants are paying for the food they prepare and serve.

And just as you’ve had to find ways to pinch pennies to meet those expenses, often without an increased income, that’s the challenge these restaurateurs face as warm weather approaches.

The bottom line is no one wants to raise prices, said Brian Curtin of Blackwells Restaurant at Great Rock Golf Club in Wading River.

Restaurants have already been hard hit by the Great Recession, which has more people eating at home rather than treating themselves to a night out. Soaring gasoline and oil prices have struck another blow against restaurateurs as they struggle to keep their regular customers happy and win a few more.

“You have to keep the price as low as possible,” Mr. Curtin said. That’s done by making menu changes, slight adjustments in portion sizes and getting daily deliveries to work the market on prices, he said.

“I’m a big fan of using East End produce,” he said, which means it’s not only fresh but also less expensive because it doesn’t have to be trucked in long distances.

But Mr. Curtin is seeing a dramatic increase in the prices his suppliers are quoting for products or goods that are shipped in from afar.

Chicken, beef and pork — mainstays of an upscale continental restaurant like Blackwells — are more expensive because corn, traditionally used to feed the animals, is being used to make alternative fuels, Mr. Curtin said.

He’s not alone.

Hellenic Snack Bar owner George Giannaris pays $90 a case for eggplant that just two weeks ago cost $25. The East Marion eatery is heavily dependent on vegetables such as eggplant.

Even lettuce that cost $22 to $25 a case two weeks ago now goes for $50, he said. Butter was $50 a case, it’s now $112. And because some kitchen staples, such as feta cheese, are imported from Europe, he pays for the decline in the value of the dollar relative to the euro.

Even maple syrup from Massachusetts fetches $49 a gallon — that’s before travel costs are factored in.

Mr. Giannaris estimates that overall he’s been seeing a 30 to 50 percent increase — and in some cases, 100 percent — in what suppliers charged last year.

He knows he can’t just double his menu prices to make up for the costs, so he’s been taking other steps, some very painful, he said.

He’s cut back staff hours, affecting employees who have been with Hellenic for many years, he said. They’re people with families and their own bills to pay and it hurts to cut their jobs or their hours, he said.

In a perfect world, Mr. Giannaris would like to operate Hellenic from April through October and run a restaurant in another community with year-round clientele from November to March. He said that’s not an option because his staff members need their jobs.

“We stay open just to keep our staff working,” he said. “They’re family.”

He has seen a decline in his lunch business as more tourists go for the finger foods available at wineries. But he’s not complaining. He knows those same wineries bring people to the North Fork and help to increase his dinner reservations. He has also seen a recent increase in takeout orders as cost-conscious diners avoid paying for drinks and tips, he said.

What does this do to the price of a meal? There will be some slight price increases for specials, Mr. Giannaris said. He’s exploring possible special offers such as offering a gift card that would cost $100 with a value of $115.

“You try to take the good with the bad,” said Stan Klasek at the Roadhouse in Riverhead. He’s been paying $60 a case for romaine lettuce that once cost a third of that. He often can’t get eggplant or other produce. He adds that he’s not about to raise prices.

“I value my customers,” he said. “I’m going to try to hold it as long as I can. We’re a family place and people work hard for their money just like me.”

Diana DiVello at Porto Bello at Greenport’s Stirling Harbor is shopping among various suppliers, trying to create some price competition. That takes more time than relying on a single supplier but it can pay off, she said. One supplier might have broccoli on sale while another offers a deal on asparagus, she said.

Her other cost-cutting measure is to do more work herself. She’s was sweeping floors, scrubbing shelves and cleaning the kitchen to get ready for her opening last Friday.

“I do most of the work here,” she said. “You’ve got to do more yourself.”

Bill Claudio hasn’t even opened the doors of his Greenport restaurant for the spring season, but the prices he’s being quoted by his suppliers and the anecdotal evidence he’s hearing from his fellow restaurateurs concern him.

A week ago, he estimated paying suppliers 3 to 10 percent more this season. But if the experiences of the others in the business are any indication, that may escalate in a grand way by the time food reaches the table for the restaurant’s April 15 opening.

He’ll start with a menu reflecting prices similar to last season, he said. But he may have to reevaluate that by the beginning of the summer.

“We’re tax-dripped to death, price-dripped to death and after you’ve got enough drips, you’re drowning,” Mr. Claudio said.

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