In the midst of the worst recession in modern history, something spectacular is happening: Restaurants are opening. In fact, lots of restaurants are opening. Don't believe it? Try this: Applications to open food establishments in New York City were up 25 percent over 2008 in the first four months of this year.
This trend, which is explained brilliantly in Regina Schrambling's feature, " Why Now Is the Time to Open a Restaurant ", probably seems counterintuitive in the current economy. But you know what? It's not: Recessions create opportunities--even in the notoriously temperamental restaurant industry. People still need to eat, and they still need that hour or two of convivial escape (desperately).
Of course, opening a restaurant today means something very different than it did in those halcyon days--about a year ago--when menus boasted $75 Kobe beef burgers and $1,500 bottles of Burgundy.
Restaurateurs have learned that stripping away the layers of white linen and battalions of waiters leaves them with something that people actually appreciate: A restaurant that's putting its money and effort into what's on the plate.
Consumer psychology and spending habits always mimic the economy. And the restaurant industry is a sensitive barometer of how consumers feel about things. People may be willing to plunk down hard-earned cash for something great to eat, but they sure as hell don't want to feel guilty about it, or pay for any fancy trappings. Make the experience less about the show and more about the food. And charge a reasonable price.
What is glaringly obvious is extravagance is out (when was the last time you saw foie gras on a menu?). Bare bones is in (bring on prime burgers and minimalist decor). This way of thinking will likely stick around for a while. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke may have proclaimed the recession over, but the mental hangover isn't going away soon.
Still, don't let that scare you. This economy can work for a business, especially one that adopts the philosophy behind the restaurants that are opening and thriving right now: Strip it down to the essentials, do what you do best and make it good.
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Amy C. Cosper,