Oct 13, 2011
11:45 AM
Café Connecticut

Scaling Down


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Downsizing may be a dirty word these days but in the restaurant business it can mean salvation. Says Prasad Chirnomula, who has opened two restaurants in the past year-and-a-half, “It’s an incredibly tough time for restaurants. Our costs are rising and our check averages are falling—yet we can’t raise our prices.”

Considered by some America’s top Indian chef, Chirnomula followed up his high-end restaurants in New Canaan, Ridgefield and New Haven with Thali Too in New Haven, a student-friendly vegetarian café and lassi bar where nothing on the menu exceeds $10. He unveiled another Thali in Westport in April 2010 and Oaxaca Kitchen, a Mexican eatery in New Haven, in April 2011, but is scaling back the former into another Thali Too. “There’s still room for good operators with sound business models,” he says.

Big-name restaurants giving rise to smaller, more casual, less costly offspring is a trend throughout Connecticut. People just aren’t spending money the way they used to in restaurants. Celebrated Spanish restaurant Ibiza in New Haven spawned Ibiza Tapas & Wine Bars in Hamden and Northampton, Mass. Owner Ignacio Blanco acknowledges that the trend is “economically driven,” saying, “Why would you want to have big rent, big costs and a big payroll these days? It’s better to have a small place with great food.”

Beloved Union League Café in New Haven begat Bar Bouchée in Madison, a true neighborhood bistro with just 30 seats, compared w3ith 130 at Union League. Owner Jean Pierre Vuilllermet observes that “being small can be an advantage. Having a small crew is easier to manage—and you always look busy, which is nice.”

Downscaling also allows a restaurateur to pursue a different demographic. Dan Keller, whose urbane Dish Bar & Grill in Hartford spawned Dish ’n Dat in Canton, sought to create “a family-friendly place where both parents and kids would be happy.” Described as a “modern-day diner,” Dish ’n Dat serves everything from omelets and pancakes to fish tacos and fancy burgers.

For some restaurateurs, downscaling has meant going the gourmet-burger route. Two of the nation’s biggest celebrity chefs recently brought burger joints to Connecticut—Bobby Flay (Bobby’s Burger Palace at Mohegan Sun) and Danny Meyer (Shake Shack in Westport). Max Restaurant Group CEO Richard Rosenthal opened Max Burger in West Hartford in 2009 and says more may be in the offing. But Rosenthal calls it “less a trend of restaurants downsizing than one of finding better food in casual settings.”

Some upscale restaurants have launched satellites close to home, proving that different concepts can flourish in close proximity without cannibalizing the original business. Carole Peck, who opened Zeeburger in the same Woodbury shopping plaza as her famed Good News Cafe, says, “I wanted to meet a broader cross-section of our community while exposing more people to really good food.” Donna Curran, who with her partner Denise Appel unfurled artisan pizzeria Kitchen Zinc right behind Zinc in New Haven, says using similar names allows them “to market both concepts simultaneously . . . while extending their reputation for using high-quality, locally grown products.”

Faced with an unforgiving economy, some restaurateurs have abandoned their original upscale dining models altogether. After his numbers at Jack’s Saybrook Steak “went from fairly decent to crushing,” owner Jack Flaws closed the place, then opened Jack Rabbit’s burger joints in Old Saybrook and Storrs.

Arturo Franco-Camacho, former chef extraordinaire of Roomba, then Bespoke, in New Haven, has worked in every scale dining operation, from street cart to the Queen Elizabeth II’s 9,000 meals a day. Citing his desire for “more family time,” Franco-Camacho recently sold his chichi Branford gastropub The Suburban to concentrate on Tacuba Taco Bar and Swill Wine Bar, located down the street.

But even downsized concepts could struggle, Franco-Comacho points out. “The biggest threat in this economy is the chains, which have tremendous buying power and can sell meals for prices that independent restaurateurs can’t. All the progress we made in exposing Americans to good, sustainable, nutritious meals is in jeopardy because people today just want to feed their families.”

Scaling Down

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