Thousands of restaurant workers could face layoffs in coming months, according to a recent survey of restaurant owners.
More than half of restaurant owners and managers who responded to a recent Washington Restaurant Association member survey said they expect to lay off staff in the first half of 2009. With 13,000 restaurants in Washington, the number of laid-off restaurant workers could easily exceed 6,900, the trade group's Chief Executive Officer Anthony Anton says.
Even before the heavy snows and widespread flooding of December and January took a big bite out of sales, local restaurant owners were feeling the nip of recession.
In WRA's mid-December survey, 57 percent of the 49 responding members reported their November sales were below those of the prior year. Another 12 percent reported their November sales were flat year over year. Less than a third of those responding said they saw sales increase during that period.
"From Thanksgiving through New Year's Day is the biggest season for restaurants," says Anton. "That didn't happen this year. A lot of Christmas parties got canceled. A lot of people who would have gone out to celebrate did not want to drive in the snow or floods or they did not have the spendable dollars they've had in the past. This six-week holiday season has been really tough."
Three in four restaurant owners who responded were not optimistic that their situation would improve this year.
At 53 percent, slightly more than half of respondents expect the next six months will be even worse than the previous six weeks while 24 percent expect the same trends to continue.
But a key question hanging over the restaurant industry is whether Americans will continue eating out as much as they have in the past, during these hard times. In the mid-90s, home-cooked meals were for the first time eclipsed by meals prepared outside the home either at restaurants or grocery delis.
"This is the first really serious recession to test the cultural phenomenon that's occurred over the last 12 years," Anton says. "The industry is hopeful it will see that customer traffic continue but customers may purchase different items and sizes."
Small plates that cost less than a full entree likely will be increasingly popular as an alternative to a full-blown meal. Diners likely also will favor cheaper cuts of meat and fish and less expensive wine.
On the plus side, the new frugality may encourage the current trend toward dining locally on foods grown within a short drive of area restaurants, Anton says. Buying locally results in fresher food and lowers transportation costs, which can translate to a cheaper tab. And that trend could prove a boon to area farmers.
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