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Who's coming to dinner?

Original post made on Dec 20, 2008

According to downtown restaurant owners and managers, business has slipped dramatically in the past year, sparking concern over what the next few months will bring.

Related stories:==
[Web Link Dining downtown: by the numbers]
[Web Link What it takes to open a restaurant]

Read the full story here Web Link posted Friday, December 19, 2008, 3:16 PM

Comments (8)

Posted by Richard Clark
a resident of Mountain View
on Dec 20, 2008 at 2:25 pm

I have to agree it's a tough gamble. At Austin's in Mountain View I was there for 8 1/2 years, and you would have thought I was safe. Then property values escalated and I had three landlords in 20 months. I still had the lease in hand, but the property taxes were a different issue. It went from $4,000. a year to $18,000. then $22,000. More than 2.5 months in rent. "It's all about greed" In fact I get a shuckle everyday that I pass that property and see that the Harmon Group never got there approval for a drive-through on their A&W/KFC concept.

In my opinion there should never have been a sale unless their high priced attorneys had better insight on Mountain View zoning. I applaud the surrounding homeowners and the City of Mountain View for there final decision.

Although I did survive the bust, 911, the stock market scandals(MCI and Enron), a $50,000. Civil Penalty with the IRS for a non-filed document, the outrageous cost of workman's Comp and energy with the then Gray Davis administration. The final straw was the one months rent that I was behind in, when the new owners bought the property, "my lease was worthless" Where was the government bail out or help then? GREED is the single reason why we are lossing middle class America at an alarming rate.

The only regrets that I have is that I should have closed and down sized to catering sooner. Most people in my situation would have filed for Bankruptcy, rather then paying off their creditors. "Again it's all about greed and the loss of integrity in our society"

Happy Holidays,

Richard Clark

Posted by Occasional Diner
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 20, 2008 at 2:59 pm

In my opinion, too many restaurants are similar. True, the styles of food may be different, the decor different and the menus themselves different. But there truly are no restaurants that stand out.

On my travels, I have come across restaurants who are innovative in a way that I have not seen here. Smaller portions, tasting portions, shared entrees, are sometimes possible, but you have to ask and sometimes you are frowned on when you ask for these. Childrens' menus are also rare in Palo Alto.

Posted by Depressed Home Chef
a resident of another community
on Dec 20, 2008 at 11:41 pm

My husband and I love eating out. But since I haven't seen a substantial paycheck in 4 years, we had to shell out so much more for gasoline this year, and am truly afraid for my husb's job security, we've tightened up even more than we did after the dot-bust/9-11. I cringe at any tab over $40, and that doesn't leave us many options besides fast food -- I can think of 2 or 3 on University, and Harry's Hofbrau in Redwood City. So, as much as I'd love to "enjoy life, eat out more often," it's been back to the kitchen for me.

Posted by Mom of 3
a resident of Greene Middle School
on Dec 21, 2008 at 2:03 am

We have eaten out 4 or 5 times per week for the last 3 years due to transitioning and being "too busy to cook." Because of the economy, we decided to cut back. We now eat out 1-2 times per week. But what I have found is:

1. We have all lost weight.
2. We all have more energy because we are eating healthier.
3. Eating out on weekdays was a huge time sink. The kids can finish their homework earlier if we stay home and they have more free time.
4. We are saving about $20/day by eating dinner at home ($20 or less meals at home)
5. When we do eat out we appreciate it more.
6. Sometimes we don't even feel like going to restaurants anymore.

It's all about finding the right recipes. Bon Appetit can have too many odd tastes for kids (I prefer their recipes from the 90s). Food Network doesn't have tested recipes.

The Cook's Country Cookbook has great recipes and they have been tested. Don't let the word "country" discourage you. These are classic recipes that we think of when we think of home cooking. I bought it at Costco Mtn. View about 4 months ago and it has a coupon for a free 1 year subscription to their magazine.

Posted by Occasional Diner
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 21, 2008 at 9:24 am

It is exactly the reasons you state the makes us occasional diners. As the kids got older, their busy schedules and homework makes family eating out not only expensive but time consuming.

Try some of the ready to cook meals from Costco, and some of the ready cooked options from Piazzas and Whole Foods. Also, get a Crock Pot and if you don't have time to prepare the casserole in the morning, it can be prepared the night before and refrigerated and then switched on one hour earlier the next day.

These options help for busier days and you can control portion size and have your own salad and bread (if necessary) options too.

Posted by Foodie on a budget
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 21, 2008 at 2:53 pm

Hey Depressed Home Chef,
There are lots of options for under $40 (for THREE, not just two) that aren't fast food:
You can get a great meal at Hobee's, check out their seasonal dinner specials. They also often have coupons at some locations for 2-for-1 dinner specials. They are the best place to get a real kids' meal that the kids will actually eat (great broccoli). If you stick with the meal (no extras like wine or desserts), three can easily eat for less than $30.

Another surprising bargain is Max's Opera Cafe. Again, if you forego the extras and stick with the main meal, you can get a hearty, delicious meal for three for a very fair price. I can remember checks for under $35 for three (but again, no extras).

If you clip coupons, Chevy's also has great coupons, buy one meal, get the second for 3.99. We often eat there, again for three, for less than $30.00. Spot A Pizza Place in Los Altos has fantastic pizza, and they send out coupons, two pizzas for a set price (very good price, also way less than $30).

Su Hong,'s has two different sizes for their takeout - they have a small size that allows you to get several dishes for a reasonable price. Other places like Lucky Chinese and the new Ranch 99 store allow you to get reasonably priced cafeteria-style chinese food. You can eat in at Lucky's (and Su Hong, of course).

Don't laugh, but we love to go to the cafeteria at Ikea -- the cost of a decent meal for three usually runs less than $20. If you have kids, this is a fun place to go, though not much on atmosphere for a couple.

Hong Kong bakery buns (Castro) are delicious and a relative bargain (but no eating in).

There are plenty of other inexpensive places to eat around here, you just have to get creative, clip coupons, and mind the extras. We need to watch the bottom line, but we'd also rather forego a little extra in the meal in order to be able to leave a generous tip - then the staff remember you and you can afford a nice dining experience even without having to spend a lot overall.

And most of all, most places have a range of prices -- we can often choose to eat "above" our budget if we watch the prices and stick with lower priced menu items.

Anyway, I just wanted you to know that fast food is not your only option!

Posted by Mr. BBQ
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 21, 2008 at 7:51 pm

We very seldom eat out, but when we do we eat at places that offer two for one meals! We use a card called passport unlimited, a very upscale entertainment guide type card with no limitations on the number of times you can use it! Puts money in your pocket, best kept secret in Palo Alto.

Your Welcome!

Posted by MXY
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 22, 2008 at 1:35 pm

To be up front about this not my real name, but I am a restauranteur with a highly successful place in downtown Palo Alto; and I'll disclose with everyone the things I knew before I went in; and what I've learned subsequently.

Before: to have all you cards in your favor

1. Build a "highly distinctive" experience. Don't copy anyone else.
2. Build an "experience", not just a product. There are few places that can get away with this if they are the only ones in the segment; but there's always someone behind you willing to go the full nine yards.
3. Have plenty of capital at hand. You project takes more than what you expect; and then the extra capital is essential for the infinite number of things that can go wrong.
4. Write a detailed business plan. This shows yourself that you understand everything about your business, and what you don’t know. Most restaurant owners don't understand their own business.
5. Accounting is incredibly important. Do it every month.

1. Palo Alto demographics are sophisticated eaters. Not enough cater to the real 'foodies' with money.

2. The asking rents in downtown Palo Alto are astronomical. We have very high traffic and low rent, and our profit margins are thin. So go figure for any of the restaurants that are not busy all the time. I don't know how they do it.

3. Most people that go into the restaurant business are unsophisticated themselves, both on the food end (the core product) and on running a complicated business (they usually come from other industries eg computers, and the needed skill sets are usually very different eg FoodNetwork x Disney).

4. I've also learned that the majority (less the high end places) are usually offering very low quality ingredients. Ingredients that you should not be eating everyday or ever. I speak of stuff with a lot preservatives, salt, fructose corn syrup. It’s an uphill battle to keep only clean ingredients, because everyone does it, and these things make ingredients last longer. The high end places use very good ingredients but they don't think twice about adding twice what you would at home, because that is what makes their stuff so good.

Conclusion: eating out should only be a one or two time per week affair. And it's about time people got back to the kitchen, so they understand what 'real' food is.

5. No real Americans are good at or want to work in the kitchens in restaurants. It's a really tough job. When we started, that's how we functioned and our turnover was incredibly high. Restaurants don't have a choice but to hire immigrants.

My feeling is that lots of change is going to happen in the restaurant industry all over. Its important that consumers vote with their money. Don't think twice about not going to a place that is not interesting, not clean, not courteous, doesn't obey laws, treats employees badly, doesn't have a good reputation, and mostly importantly not delicious. Ask about the ingredients in your food. You have the right to know. And support places that are trying to do the right thing, whatever that might mean to you.

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