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Finally...More Feast Than Famine For The Restaurant Industry

Brian Woehrman, general manager of Lockkeepers Restaurant, readies salads (pic by Brian Bull)
Brian Woehrman, general manager of Lockkeepers Restaurant, readies salads (pic by Brian Bull)

In the kitchen of Lockkeepers restaurant in Valley View, Chef Alberto Leandri dashes between rows of steaming kettles and sizzling saucepans. He’s cooking a dish from his native Venice.

“I’m doing some Garganelli all'Amatriciana," he explains, sprinkling cheese and grated herbs onto the dish. " ….ah, with some tomato sauces, tomato-onion, and pancetta. And Pecorino Romano cheese on top. It’s pretty nice and light.”

On this busy Thursday afternoon, even Lockkeepers’ General Manager, Brian Woehrman is in the kitchen, handing off plates of spiky green salad to wait staff as they come and go from the dining hall.

Business is brisk, and Woehrman is thinking about expanding his staff of about 75.

“We do plan on taking on some new staff members through the next year," says Woehrman. "We project a 10 percent increase in sales, so things look pretty good.”

Lockkeepers turns 20 this year. Woehrman says that benchmark’s worth celebrating, given the tumbles his restaurant took in recent years.

“The in-house catering and private dining, from 2008 to 2009, really took a big dip and had to be rebuilt. I think it was cut in half, and then grew back to its former level.”

Woehrman says several cost-saving measures kept Lockeepers afloat. New and replacement hires were infrequent, and existing staff were given more responsibilities. Energy usage was cut back, and the restaurant itself was rebranded as a largely fine – yet more casual and affordable -- dining experience. Jeans and t-shirts are as much the dress code here as are gowns and neckties.

Woehrman says the worst thing a struggling restaurant can do, is to raise prices when sales are low. Jarrod Clabaugh of the Ohio Restaurant Association, agrees.

“Restaurants always look at every opportunity they can to deflect costs, before passing that cost on to the consumer.”

Clabaugh says for those Ohio restaurants that scrimped and scaled back to survive the recession, brighter days for both sales and hiring are ahead.

“The sales figures are expected to increase 3.6 percent in Ohio for 2013. That means that we’re looking at $17.4 billion, which means more dining out, which means more people to feed those folks.”

One restaurant that’s already grown -- despite the recession and its aftershock -- is Melt Bar and Grilled, where the grilled cheese sandwich reigns supreme. Since 2006, it’s opened four locations in the Greater Cleveland area – employing 350 people. This year, it’ll open a restaurant in Columbus, adding at least 60 more.

Owner Matt Fish says novelty and affordability have drawn steady, hungry crowds.

“Every single person that I’ve come across has some sort of story about a grilled cheese sandwich," says Fish. "Everybody can relate to it. And that’s the reason I think that we were able to survive through the rough economic times, is that we provide comfort.”

That’s Jerald Benovitz’s take. He’s from Parma, but often travels up to Melt’s Lakewood location. He says he and the others at his table have been coping with tight economic times lately, but are devoted patrons.

“We’ve scaled back a little bit but what we try to do is go out. You know, not quite for fast food, but not the five-star location…but something more in-between where we can afford it and do it more, than not.”

Larger chain restaurants have weathered the recession better than individual operations.

Case in point: the Bob Evans chain of more than 500 eateries nationwide.

Joe Eulberg is Executive Vice-President of Human Resources. He says in the last few years, the Columbus-based company greatly expanded its take-out options. It also developed online ordering services for smart phones, and kept improving and promoting its grocery line.

And for the year ahead, he says the company plans to renovate – or “refresh” their existing Bob Evans locations.

“Every time we do a restaurant refresh, the sales go up and sales going up means more people being hired," says Eulberg. "So usually that’s about 5-10 people more per restaurant we add, for every one we do. And we plan that we add for every one we do, and we plan to have all of the restaurants in Ohio refreshed within the next 12 months.”

2013 won’t be all gravy for the food service industry. High prices of fuel and drought-ravaged commodities like corn and grain will play their part, and the economy is still wavering enough to curb some people’s appetite for eating out.

But overall gains have been steady, and many restaurant operators think they’ve got the expertise now to meet challenges.