Tight Times Reiterate Need For Value Dining

OCEAN CITY – “Foodies” might be sitting pretty when they do decide to dine out, as restaurants from Coastal Highway to California are jockeying for position by offering the best deals to potential diners, despite skyrocketing food costs.

The National Restaurant Association is projecting that 2009 will be the “most challenging for the industry since 1980”, citing rising food costs, a tanking economy and the dwindling number of “eat-out” diners whose finances are getting tighter and tighter.

All over Delmarva, off-season specials are in full effect, and though most Ocean City restaurants are no strangers to this discount strategy in the off-season, the economy has forced some restaurants to either start their specials early or run more of them.

The sting might not be felt in Ocean City as much as other cities straight away, as there is always a drop-off in sales and diners when the warm weather fades, forcing restaurants to either close for the season or simply on certain days of the week. One restaurant in West Ocean City, the Applebees on Route 50 has reportedly not only closed for the season, but it’s been reported to be closing for good.

Dawn Sweeney, CEO of the NRA, released an official statement in September urging Congress and the current administration to act quickly to stabilize the economy citing that “an economy that hurts our customers, it hurts us more than the soaring food costs, growing labor costs, or energy price spikes.”

Food costs have risen approximately 9 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Studies, and that fact certainly puts more of a strain on restaurants having to already offer their food at a discount price just to draw in customers.

Even the fast food chains are raising prices, as the McDonald’s corporation announced plans to raise the price of the $1 menu in recent weeks. According to the NRA, fast food is the restaurant industry that usually thrives in time of economic struggle.

Harborside owner Chris Wall also cites a rise in beer prices as another problem that restaurateurs face, saying, “they’ve gone up three times already, and that’s up even from last year. Liquor prices usually go up this time of year because the holidays are the biggest selling season for booze, but we can’t raise prices at this time of year. Our hands are tied.”

Wheat, flour and produce prices have also skyrocketed, forcing some restaurants to start looking locally for produce and letting up on the expensive but incredibly popular organic food trend.

According to industry trend reports done by the NRA, carryout will go up slightly, with a focus on comfort foods and prix fixe menus growing in popularity, especially with swankier restaurants. Another trend predicted is that people are going to start staying a lot closer to home, certainly helping geographically favorable spots in town like West Ocean City, which is much closer to a larger majority of the off-season population.

“West Ocean City has become a destination for people for entertainment, dining, and drinks,” Wall said. “It really has everything to offer to people and they don’t have to drive over the bridge.”

Industry reports say “all you can eat” dining may be one of the few bright spots, citing that diners will want all they can get for their dollar. That potential trend could fare well for area buffets like the Bonfire.

“Believe it or not, there’s still a big market for all-you-can-eat dining,” manager Rick Weber said. “We had a very strong summer. We’re a big ticket dinner, but we still offer value.”

Staying true to the “comfort foods for less” trend, Harborside is offering nightly themed specials including a Tuesday night “Gravy” night or “Mexican Mondays” and there are a rising number of restaurants offering lunches for $5.

Some restaurants are offering bargain specials for this area, even for this time of year, as restaurants like Sunset Grille is offering a four-course Italian dinner for $10.99 in addition to the usual off-season half price entrée specials offered at the area’s “top shelf” priced places like Nantuckets, and Fager’s and a continuation of the Prix Fixe three for $30 menus offered during the popular OCHMRA “Restaurant Week” like Fresco’s, Galaxy 66, Marlin Moon Grille, and The Shark.

“Most Ocean City diners essentially pick up the papers and look for where the specials are. I had a list last winter personally of where I could go to find good food for cheap and when”, said Brian Acquavella, bar manager at Macky’s, which is closed for the season, “but I also feel it’s an obligation for locals to go out and spend more than just the special in order to support the town’s restaurant industry, because they are certainly not making much profit off these specials and the locals know that. If you want to keep your favorite local hangout open, you can’t just order a glass of water with the special.”

Acquavella says that though 2009 is being projected as a challenging year for restaurants, the real struggle will be to keep the diner’s attention and work for every dollar.

“That’s where the customer service part of it comes in. People aren’t going to be going out as much, and because of that, restaurants are going to have to work for every dollar,” he said.