Two Top Restaurateurs Hope Promos, Value, and Damned Good Food Get Them Through

Johnny Vinczencz.jpg
Johnny Vinczencz, at right, and Burt Rapoport: remaining optimistic.

Restaurateurs tend to be a fairly optimistic lot. After all, a positive attitude is practically a requirement to enter a business that's perpetually overbuilt, where profit margins can be as thin as Sarah Palin's résumé.

New Times talked to a pair of local restaurateurs whose longtime success in their markets is no accident -- Johnny Vinczencz (of Johnny V's and Smith & Jones) and Burt Rapoport (of Henry's and Bogart's). And although they recognize the difficulties of the present, they're also pretty confident of enduring and prospering. Below is an excerpt of their responses.

New Times: How has the crappy economy affected the local restaurant industry?

Vinczencz: Obviously the economy of the whole nation is down. It affects tourism; it affects business. People aren't spending as much money. They're still
going out, but instead of going out Tuesday and Thursday and the weekend, they're just going out on Saturday. And they're being more frugal.

Rapoport: I think the softness [in the South Florida market] is pretty much across the board. Chains are cutting back on their expansion; some of them are closing units. Certainly mom-and-pop operators are having a hard time too. I was thinking that higher-end restaurants were more susceptible to a downturn, but if you look at Boca, there are seven steak houses there, and they all seem to be maintaining. So maybe people are not going out as often, but when they go out, they want to spend some money and have a good time. 

What are restaurateurs doing to keep people coming back?

Vinczencz: We're doing a lot of promos, prix fixe menus, getting creative with the food. One of the upsides [of the downturn] is that chefs are finding creative ways to use cheaper ingredients, cheaper cuts of meat, and making them just as tasty.

Rapoport: The biggest thing ultimately is the customer's perception of value -- when they walk out the door, they feel like they got their money's worth, whether they spent $200 a couple or $40 a couple. It's more than just price point; it's the quality of food, ambiance, and service.

Will the comfort-food fad stick around? And is it hurting cutting-edge cuisine?

Vinczencz: There will always be a place for comfort-food restaurants, more affordable restaurants. You're seeing a lot of chefs now using their creativity not only at the high end; they're doing comfort food but putting their own spin on it. But if I were going to open a restaurant tomorrow, I would be very cautious about doing anything cutting-edge, especially in a town like Fort Lauderdale.

Rapoport: When people are going out to eat these days, they're not looking for challenges. They're looking for reliability and familiarity, so any restaurateur needs to be careful about doing the kind of food where customers don't know what they're eating. 

South Florida is just now jumping on the local, organic, sustainable food bandwagon. Is the bad economy going to stall it?

Vinczencz: Organics is not a trend; it's a way of eating. It's definitely a movement. There's a few guys here doing it well, but there needs to be a lot of work done from farm to table to make it easier for not just chefs and restaurateurs to get local products but for the average person. 

Rapoport: There's certainly a trend of eating healthier, cleaner, and I think it's something that will continue growing. And I think people will be willing to pay for it.

Is the whole "restaurant as entertainment" thing making a comeback?

Vinczencz: The clientele who go out dining and the clientele who go out to party and eat are two different clienteles. There's definitely a market for that, that all-in-one package, but I don't think more restaurants like mine will try entertainment. It's just a really different thing.

Rapoport: That [entertainment] has to be developed in the planning stages of a restaurant. But incorporating activities, entertainment, action, merchandising into a concept is certainly back. I think it's going to be a vital component of successful restaurants in the future. But your "entertainment" could be a wood-burning oven, a mozzarella bar, a rotisserie or sushi station.

There's a lot of opportunity to do things like that that reinforce the quality of the food. What do you see in our restaurant future?

Vinczencz: The biggest fear is that the season won't come next year. It doesn't have to be the best season ever. But if it isn't better, a lot of restaurants are going to have to make some very hard decisions. There's definitely going to be a shakeout. The good restaurants will survive, and the ones that aren't, won't. But you can't rule anything out. No one is safe -- that's the cold, hard fact. All we can do is be as creative as possible and hope things get better.

Rapoport: You read in the papers that the recession ended and we're on the rebound, but I think it's going to take a long time before it reaches Main Street, before people become looser with their money. We're budgeting for doing the same numbers we did last year. If we do better, that's great, but I don't want to plan to do more and then have to scramble.

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