Gas, Food Prices Squeezing Restaurants
Smaller, locally owned cafes and restaurants are being hit hard by a double-squeeze -- costly gasoline makes folks less likely to eat out, and their cost for groceries is going up.
Carthage lost its popular German restaurant, the Bavarian Brathaus, because most of its customers were out-of-towners driving in.
Leon Zhang is holding the line on his $5.99 all-you-can eat lunch buffet at Peking Wok in Pinecrest Plaza in Southern Pines and Carthage, but says he will have to come out with a new menu and new prices for ordered fare if this upward trend continues.
Mino Gironda, who manages Vito's in Pinehurst Plaza, said the soaring price of food is taking a toll. For example, he said, a bag of flour -- one of the staples for pizza dough and pasta -- has risen from $11 at the first of the year to nearly $28. It has gone as high as $37, he said.
"We have taken a big hit," he said. "The price of all of the food has gone up. The percentages are baffling. For a small business, it is a big hit because we want to use the same ingredients. Quality is the heart of our business. It is the constant product that everyone expects.
"We have had a great backing by our regulars who continue to come in and support us."
Two side-by-side favorite restaurants in Aberdeen's vintage downtown are struggling. Christy Evan is chief cook and manager of Crystal Taylor's Aberdeen Cafe, one of a number of popular places for lunch away from Sandhills offices.
"It has dropped off some," Evan said. "The cafe closed for a week in March and remodeled, then reopened with whole new staff and a changed menu."
The cafe features home-cooked vegetables, homemade soups, cornbread and other regional favorites. The new interior is clean and bright, but too many tables are empty no matter how good the food.
"We do a homemade special every day, and the best burger in town," she said. "I don't do a lot of the bill paying, but just from going to the grocery store I can see everything going up. Hamburger has gone up quite a bit. Vegetables are 10 to 15 percent higher than just a couple of months ago. We'd had to go up then, but haven't gone up since."
She tries to shop locally for groceries, getting some things from Aberdeen Produce at the far end of Sycamore Street in one direction and other things from the Galaxy market just down the block in the other.
Sycamore runs along the CSX tracks near the old depot, across from buildings that once warehoused goods for rail shipping, but are now home to artists. Old Aberdeen has been going upscale from the days it billed itself as "the shopping center of the Sandhills." Antique shops and intimate, friendly restaurants have become anchors and magnets.
With wholesale costs on an upswing, and customers dwindling, Evan sees her margin shrinking.
"Survival is an issue," she said. "The place next door has been slow, too. Something's got to change."
At that place next door, Southern Lights, Linda Cummings has had much the same challenges to face. Her menu is entirely different, but just as individual. She's a chef, and proud of what she prepares. She won't alter her time-tried and tested recipes even when some ingredients reach unimaginably high prices.
"A prime example is the cost of seedless white grapes," Cummings says. "I am known for my fruited chicken salad -- best in Moore County, everybody tells me. Those grapes used to cost about $1.97 a pound. They are over $2 now, but last summer they were as much as $11 a pound."
The red "seedless" were a lot cheaper, but Cummings would not change the way she makes her chicken salad.
"They say 'seedless' but there are seeds," she said. "Little bitty ones, but they are seeds. People don't want seeds in their salad."
Her pride in what she serves, and her determination not to shave quality, is typical of cooks at small eateries that base their survival on a returning base of regular customers. But in the current economy, when that trip out for lunch hits the gas tank, even regulars think twice before taking an unessential drive anywhere -- even for a relaxing and tasty meal.
These are not high-dollar deals. Prices at small restaurants where people go for workday breakfasts and lunches are traditionally reasonable. Places good enough for treating guests, reliable, friendly, clean and familiar have built their reputations and counted on customer loyalty. Now, Cummings said, even the loyal are checking their pocketbooks and gas gauges first.
"People pay attention to prices," she said. "Down here they pay a lot of attention to prices."
Her place started to see a slowdown last summer during the U.S. Women's Open.
"It got better in the fall, and October was great," she said. "But January -- which was the best month we had all year in 2007 -- was a disaster. The only thing that has enabled me to hang on has been catering."
Her catering business has picked up recently. She is normally open for breakfast and lunch, does a Sunday brunch -- but will reopen to serve dinners for private parties.
"I don't know which is worse, groceries or gas prices," she said. "A case of eggs more than doubled."
She caters out, and caters in. An old customer from Carthage brought two dozen guests for a dinner. But day by day, like her friend next door, Cummings walks a tight wire between her costs and her customers' costs to get there.
Contact John Chappell at 783-5841 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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