Photo - With approximately 1,000 transactions happening each business day, Operator Luke Wilbanks says the recession did not keep customers from coming to Chick-fil-A on North Street.
(Photo by Bruce R. Partain)
Appetites for dining out
By Lindsay Waterman
Intern,Nacogdoches County Chamber
Since 2008, the US economy has seen more downs than ups. Every industry has been impacted in some way by the recession. Layoffs in one field lead to slower business in another, and less business can mean labor cuts.
Americans have become not only more aware of the money they spend, and choose also to eliminate unnecessary expenses. While food is a necessity, wiser spending for some families means cutting back on dining out.
The restaurant industry has been greatly hurt by the weak economy, with restaurants nationwide reporting a drop in business for two straight years. The National Bureau of Economic Research - a private, non-partisan research organization - declared last fall that the recession had ended and recovery had begun. Some evidence of that is the food industry has started to see a comeback, even if just slightly.
According to a National Restaurant Association forecast, this year will see a 0.7 percent rise for full-service restaurants, which will be the first increase since 2007.
So how does Nacogdoches compare to the rest of the country? According to the Comptroller of Public Accounts Quarterly Sales Tax Report, Nacogdoches County has seen a steady rise in gross sales in the Accommodation/Food Services category each year since 2002. Gross sales climbed more than three million dollars, from $86,410,372 in 2009 to $89,755,781 in 2010, an increase of 0.96 percent.
According to Luke Wilbanks, operator of Chick-fil-A on North Street, business volume has definitely risen. This location, which opened in 2008, is doing about 1,000 transactions each day. “We don’t know there was a recession,” Wilbanks answered when asked about the effects of the fallen economy. Wilbanks says that the customers they serve everyday are spending about the same or slightly less than in the past, making the most of the limited time offers on items such as shakes. Wilbanks said his location has not seen a change in the rate of return on coupons, despite the “extreme couponing” craze that has spread like wildfire through the nation.
Donna Finley, co-owner of Sports Shack Bar and Grill and Casa Tomas, reports that while business has remained steady, people do seem to be cutting back on their spending. People are ordering water rather than soft drinks more now than in the past, and also taking advantage of the drink specials when it comes to alcoholic beverages.
Jeremy Niuman, manager of Clear Springs, agrees with the NRA’s report of increased sales, saying both sales and volume “are up a bit.” Niuman also says that they have seen a lot more out-of-towners, as the “city has done a great job in the past few years getting travelers into town.” Niuman says that the use of coupons is about the same as in the past.
Unlike Chick-fil-A and Clear Springs, Drew McGuire at Chili’s Grill and Bar has noticed a difference in the return on coupons; this, however, is likely due to the new e-mail coupon program the company implemented about a year ago. Customers can sign up to receive e-mail specials, and many have taken advantage of this feature.
McGuire says that one particular feature of the e-coupon program is the Kids Eat Free Night (coupon only special). These have become popular among families trying to cut back on spending, and “parents’ ordering water is more noticeable on these nights.” Folks are also cutting out desserts. Appetizer sales, however, are increasing.
Susan Pack Reents, owner of Hotel Fredonia, has seen continued growth. Pack Reents has worked strenuously to rebuild the hotel restaurant, J. McKinney's. She said she wants to “compete with big city restaurants menu wise, so people don't have to go out of town to get a nice dinner, but at prices that are competitive to other places here.”
She is working on revamping the menu for July, and hoping to change menus quarterly to offer seasonal varieties. She also opened The Vault Coffee and Wine Bar, and is bringing people in for live entertainment on the weekends at Nine Flags Sports Bar and Patio.
“We serve about 3,500 hundred guests per week, and a lot more people are splitting entrees,” said Karen Klein, general manager of Cotton Patch Café, a restaurant that originated in Nacogdoches in 1989. “Total sales volume has been steady,” she said.
As the economy continues to strengthen, restaurant sales will likely continue to improve. It may take time for people to recover from the fears that have developed in the past years, but the confidence is returning. And this, for Nacogdoches, is great news.