Monday, January 26, 2009

A news sampler to start the week

The last few days brought a number of interesting yet little-noticed developments within the restaurant industry. Taken separately, they’re mere curiosities. But as connected dots, they form a picture of how the business is changing with brutal times.

Gordon Ramsay said to be in financial trouble: The New York Post reported Sunday that stardom hasn’t shielded the ill-tempered chef from the economic free-fall. Foxtrot Oscar, his celebrated London restaurant, is now closed two days a week, and two of his other eateries there are rumored to be for sale, though Ramsay insists he’s not looking for a buyer, according to the tabloid.

“21” loosens its dress code: The famed New York playground of the rich and wrinkled has reportedly dropped the requirement that men wear neckties at dinner. Spats, however, are still recommended. Okay, I made that last point up. But the tie rule was equally as outmoded. Most old-guard restaurants would let you dine buck naked these days to put a butt in a seat. What’s covering said butt shouldn’t matter in an economic situation as dire as the present. It’s enough to make you fall off your polo pony—which, by the way, can no longer be valet-parked.

No more lunches for Boston’s Locke-Ober: The Beantown landmark has been keeping its doors shut until dinner since Jan. 1, but even a hometown newspaper didn’t notice until last week. That may explain why the service was discontinued. But it must’ve been a monocle-dropper to all the old Brahmins and blue hairs who’d been lunching there since the riffraff and nouveau riche started showing up. Where can a guy in tie and spats eat comfortably in a big city these days?

Pigall’s nee Maisonette fires down its ovens: The lone restaurant in the heart of the Midwest to earn a four-star Mobile rating has thrown in the napkin. Jean-Robert at Pigall’s, the Cincinnati restaurant that replaced the city’s famous Maisonette, is reportedly closing Feb. 28 because of strife among its partners and weak finances, which seem to go hand-in-hand these days. As a local newspaper notes, the announcement came on the same day the place was awarded its fifth four-star designation from the Mobile dining guide. It was reportedly the only eatery in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky to earn that lofty assessment. The closing speaks volumes about the state of fine dining outside the coastal enclaves that serve an international trade.

Gladstone’s to open in LAX: A riff on the mega-volume Malibu landmark is scheduled to be unveiled on Thursday in Los Angeles’ Marquis de Sade-sanctioned airport. The outlet will be run by contract feeder HMSHost Corp., which is also operating a La Brea bakery inside LAX, whose lone redeeming quality is being only a shuttlebus away from an In-N-Out.

Brinker’s in-store gift-card sales tanked: Not all of last week’s news tidbits were cooked up by independents. The parent of Maggiano’s and On The Border told investors last week that its workhorse Chili’s brand suffered a 14% drop in sales of gift cards within the chain’s restaurants.

The impact was tempered, CEO Doug Brooks explained, by year-over-year increases in sales of the cards by retailers and other third parties. A major factor for the in-store decline, Brooks said, was the discontinuation of a “bounce-back” deal--exactly like the ones countless other chains adopted this year. Persons buying a card were given a $5 credit, a sort of commission, that they could redeem during a later visit.

Brinker determined that the incremental business wasn’t worth the give-away. So it dropped the deal for 2008—a year marked by the availability of similar come-ons from other chains.

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